December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
7 years ago

The Obama selfie: Harmless or tasteless?

Updated 11:06 a.m. ET, 12/11/2013

(CNN) – Nelson Mandela's memorial service Tuesday was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event where dozens of world leaders join thousands of South Africans in a massive stadium, all to honor the anti-apartheid icon.

Instead, it turned into a media sensation...about a selfie.



Halfway through the ceremony, President Barack Obama could be seen helping Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as the two squeezed in with British Prime Minister David Cameron to take a smiling photo of themselves with a camera-phone

Sitting next to them was first lady Michelle Obama, who was clearly not taking part in the photo-op.

AFP Photographer Roberto Schmidt, from about 150 meters away, caught the moment. And as soon his photo went public, it went viral.

Twitter and Facebook feeds lit up with the photo. News outlets quickly blasted it out online and on television. It all sparked a surging debate: Was the selfie a cute moment, or a tasteless act?

The reaction

"Did the President really take a selfie at a funeral? It appears the First Lady did not approve," Republican strategist and conservative firebrand Erick Erickson tweeted early Tuesday.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spent a portion of show hammering the President for taking part in the selfie and shaking Cuban President Raul Castro's hand at the same event. Obama, Limbaugh argued, was trying to make the memorial service all about himself.

"He doesn't care, folks," Limbaugh said. "This is his stage. I mean, this whole week is about Barack Obama. You understand, that's really what this all means. That's what this soap opera script is. It's not the death of Mandela anymore. This is about Barack Obama assuming Mandela's place as a great whatever on the world stage."

Some tabloids in Britain, Denmark and the U.S. were afire with speculation, as more photos came out and showed the three world leaders playfully interacting, with the first lady still sitting idly by.

"UK papers making hay with Obama selfie & FLOTUS's face. Daily Mail calls PM Helle Thorning-Schmitt "the flirty Dane," Jon Williams tweeted.

Karl Erik Stougaard, online managing editor at the Danish newspaper Politiken, told BBC on Wednesday that the Danish press consider the now-famous selfie "humorous" and a "very fun story."

"I don't see anyone complaining or criticizing the Danish prime minister for taking a selfie at the memorial,' he said, joking that the Danish don't have their own word for "selfie" and stole the English version.

In fact the word "selfie" didn't become a household name until just the last couple of years, as camera phones–combined with photo sharing sites like Instagram–made it easier to instantly spread the photos far and wide.

This year the phenomenon also became a fun pastime for celebrities, who are more used to being photographed from a distance than an arms-length away. Selfies by people like Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and BeyoncĂ©– even the Pope - further amplified the selfie movement.

Nearly a year ago Obama's own daughters, Sasha and Malia, stole the show at their father's inauguration parade when they were seen taking selfies. The First Lady herself snapped a photo of her and the family dog at the White House.

And in August of this year, Oxford Dictionaries cemented the word in the English language, giving it a spot in the dictionary after finding that usage of the term had increased by 17,000% within the previous year.

'Simply acting like human beings'

Schmidt, the AFP photographer, said he was flummoxed at the reaction to the selfie and found nothing distasteful about posing for a self-photo at this particular memorial service.

"All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader," Schmidt wrote in a blog post. "It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn't see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa."

Responding to interpretations that Michelle Obama was peeved at her husband for lightheartedly engaging with his European counterparts–even perhaps flirting with the Danish prime minister–Schmidt cautioned that "photos can lie."

"In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included," he continued. "Her stern look was captured by chance."

In what's become the year of the selfie, Schmidt also questioned the new social media whirlwind in which photos that show such levity become the center of heated debate.

"At the time, I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you," he said. "For me, the behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural. I see nothing to complain about, and probably would have done the same in their place."

Filed under: Nelson Mandela • President Obama • South Africa
soundoff (1,374 Responses)
  1. TJ

    As many Danes would say to mr. obama; "kneppe dig selv!"

    December 10, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  2. Kola

    By now the people of the world should know that Americans are haters, selfish and brutal politicians. They have shown that they don't listen to reason. Let the rest of the world move on.

    December 10, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  3. Philip

    And another great example from the First Fool in Chief.

    December 10, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  4. pg1960

    I find all the indignation from a bunch of Racists who could care less about Nelson Mandela hilarious. Whether this was a "selfie", they were looking at I picture of something during a pause in the events or whatever; it is just another excuse for the Rightwing crazies who hate that we have a black President to go berserk.

    December 10, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  5. Sniffit

    "Celebration or not, I find this tasteless and disrespectful."

    Justify it. Seriously. You people are ridiculous. What you find tasteless and disrespectful is that a black man is our POTUS. Admit it. Nothing he could possibly do would ever be ok in your mind. Ever. No matter what the man does, you're going to invent some reason for complaining about it. And you wonder why the rest of us have essentially stopped listening to you people? GROW. UP.

    December 10, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  6. Really?

    The public, dancing in the street is one thing but to act like that at a funeral is another. Do u fools making excuse understand how to behave at funeral? Of course u don't & obviously our POTUS does not. Not only was President Obama disrespectful at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, he was there as a head of state representing a country and was a big embarrassment. He should not be acting like a selfish spoiled "look at me" Kardashian. But this is what u get when selfish, classless morons elect a selfish, classless moron as POTUS.

    December 10, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  7. Sniffit

    "Looks like their at a football game celebrating"

    So did the whole stadium.

    December 10, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  8. Leaderless

    It is completely sophomoric and undignified. It's like, totally, "Hey Bro! Sup? Just hangin' with my peeps!"

    December 11, 2013 09:21 am at 9:21 am |
  9. Roggy

    Clueless president with a shrew of a wife. Poor guy, nothing going right lately.

    December 11, 2013 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  10. ImvotingforHillary

    Oh wah. If this was Bush instead of Obama all the racist would think it was "cool". Anything President Obama does is going to be put down. He could be photograghed reading the Bible and the righties would put him down.

    December 11, 2013 09:23 am at 9:23 am |
  11. mike in NH

    What can one say? To the people of S. Africa I apologize on behalf of our President forgive him as he doesn't know what he is doing.

    December 11, 2013 09:24 am at 9:24 am |
  12. grace

    Last week the libs where whining about the Romney son doing that at a car accident where no one was hurt. Now Obama does it at a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  13. ShawnDH

    OH NO! Obama took a picture!

    That's much worse than Reagan's staunch support of the brutal policy of Apartheid, you know.

    December 11, 2013 09:25 am at 9:25 am |
  14. Marty

    Looks like they had fun.

    December 11, 2013 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  15. Steve

    Do you people really think the hate is because he is black? Look at the hate the last president got. Or go back and look at Clinton. Or go back and look at the second president Adams. Its not because he is black, its stronger than that, its because he is a Democrat and they are Republicans. I dont like his politics, but cant say I dislike him anymore than the last president. I'm sure some racist do bash him based on his color. But by and large its a my team vs your team. And everyone knows its much more fun to have the other teams president in office.

    December 11, 2013 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  16. jo2

    Another non story courtesy of CNN

    December 11, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  17. Friends

    His ego is as big as his ears.

    December 11, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  18. shorething

    Obama is the only leader to make a memorial service all about him. His actions, his speech was all about him. Most people talk about the person being memorialized, Obama talks about himself

    December 11, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  19. Friends

    Selfie is a perfect word to describe Obama

    December 11, 2013 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  20. ok

    I find this very disrespectful to Nelson Mandela and as a representative of the US. Those of you saying the criticism is only because Mr. Obama is black would, I'm sure, be chastising George Bush if he did anything like this – as I would also.

    Not everything good or bad about Barack Obama is about his race.

    December 11, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  21. BrockLanders

    What a sorry excuse we have for a POTUS. I have zero respect for him as a man, much less the leader of our great country. I can't wait until his time in office is over–I can't stand to see or look at his face.

    December 11, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  22. YeahRight

    I have a lot more respect for FLOTUS now. At least she appeared to be respectful to the late Mr. Mandela. Her husband is an embarrassment, however.

    December 11, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  23. Anonymous

    OMG, what ignorance. Don't any of you realize that one frame, one photo cannot tell the whole story? Obama was all over Mandela's death this week – making a speech, visiting him before he dies, calling him a great man, etc. This one out-of-contxt photo surfaces and the haters take the bait like a hungry piranha. Disgusting.

    December 11, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  24. john

    Kudos to Obama for trying to keep a positive spirit during such a sad time. If we don't fight back with smiles, then sadness will engulf us every day. A+ Obama!

    December 11, 2013 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  25. Katie1970

    As much as I dislike Mr. Obama, I find nothing wrong with it. It was maybe 10 seconds during the entire memorial. It may have been between speeches, etc. I thought his speech was dignified and respectful, and that's what I hope people will remember. What I find hilarious is Michelle's reaction and the changing of the seats, Looking at Obama's Honolulu prom picture on London's Daily Mail, PM Helle Thoring-Schmidt is more his type (blonde, cheerleader) than professional victim Michelle anyway!

    December 11, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
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