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. John

    Anyone who cares that Obama took a 'selfie' with other world leaders truly needs to get a life. There are much more important things to worry about.

    December 11, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  2. Bobbi

    Why are you surprised at these people are acting like morons??? I really don't like Michelle either but for this one I give her a 10. At a funeral...WOW....just shows you what our politicians have come to be. WE are a disgrace as a phones....muslims.....

    December 11, 2013 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  3. Senior in Texas

    So very disrespectful.

    December 11, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  4. Sanchez

    Are they really making a big deal over a picture? Just because he's the president doesn't mean he's a robot and doesn't do anything normal and act like us. He took selfies with friends, so what?

    December 11, 2013 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  5. Deb D

    I think the diversity between our leaders is a great tribute to men like Mandela. Celebrate his life!

    December 11, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  6. Bamabegone!

    What a self-absorbed idiot! All three are idiots - and disgusting.

    December 11, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  7. Wade

    Obama is so in love with Obama that he probably kisses himself in the mirror every morning and has a treasure trove of selfie's

    December 11, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  8. Name

    Who cares.... really.... people are more focused on this irrelevant picture than the reason why obma was there!!!!! The event was in a stadium with thousands taking pics, and celebrating. This was a celebration of life.....

    December 11, 2013 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  9. Just Me

    Had George W. Bush acted this way, the left would have had a field day. And, if George W. had acted this way, I would have said exactly what I am going to say now......'this is not appropriate behavior by the POTUS attending a memorial service..... period. It has nothing to do with race.

    December 11, 2013 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  10. John

    At a memorial service for Mandela and Obama is acting like some teenage clown. What a total lack of respect and embarrassment as our President.

    December 11, 2013 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  11. Rob

    Obama is a bully and a thug. He imposes preconditions on the Cubans to dismantle their one party system...but he won't do the same to China! BULLY!

    December 11, 2013 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  12. me

    Hubby had to go to the corner LOL

    December 11, 2013 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  13. John

    The vast majority of us could care less.

    December 11, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  14. nuclear mike

    This picture taken in a public forum of the furneal speaks volumes as to the President's view of himself, America and the World...the First Lady's expression says it all for her disdain as her black husband flirts with blonde babe.

    Again, Shame on you Mr. President and you have no real respect for anybody, but yourself!!!

    December 11, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  15. GOP1963

    would love to have seen the left's indignation if Bush had pulled the same tactless stunt

    December 11, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  16. Logical

    Look at all the people who don't understand what a selfie is and bashing the president. Obama did not take the photo so it is not his selfie. It was another country's leader. Anyway he should have politely declined the request if it was in the middle of any speech. Use your brain people.

    December 11, 2013 09:41 am at 9:41 am |
  17. Chris

    All you people moaning about him being disrespectful have no idea what you are talking about. It WAS NOT a funeral. It was a memorial service celebrating Mandela's life. His funeral is Sunday. Get your facts right. The whole atmosphere was like a soccer match. This is how the Africans do it with music, dance and vuvuzuelas!. So what if he took a self with PMs of the UK and Denmark. At least other world leaders like to be around him, unlike our previous leader. Get a life!

    December 11, 2013 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  18. beastwork

    I'm an Obama supporter, but I find this little incident in poor taste. He'll regret this once he sees how bad it looks. No selfies at funerals!

    December 11, 2013 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  19. anthony ta

    To u the people who said it is ok. Just invite me to ur family's funeral so i can laugh

    December 11, 2013 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  20. Logical

    CNN please correct the title of the article unless you intentionally like misleading readers to get them to click on the link. Oh you actually meant to mislead readers, never mind my request then.

    December 11, 2013 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  21. critical thinking

    If you like your wife, you can keep your wife, period. was over heard after the memorial.

    December 11, 2013 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  22. JackieG

    So, they are human, just like the rest of us. Big Deal.

    December 11, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  23. Frank

    This is news.

    December 11, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  24. Namelester pace

    It was broadcast on tv that you could keep your insursance alot of times did not get as much responce as a selfie so all lives lost fighting for our freedom means what our president says means nothing but what he does impeach him . mendala died so we could party instead of carry on his work

    December 11, 2013 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  25. Derk

    Real life has abandoned us entirely it seems. A nation of people dancing in the streets, tens of thousands in the arena gesticulating and celebrating a truly remarkable life and the best the ultra-right can come up with is "that's not how you behave at a funeral."

    For the record it was not a funeral, it was a memorial. They are not the same thing and to think people should just be somber and dreary when the entire point is to celebrate Mandela, not mourn him.

    December 11, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
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