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.



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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 Beyoncé– 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. melanieb.

    First of all how rude of Obama & the Danish for doing this during a funeral . He shows no class no in doing what he did. His wife on the other hand was just as rude by sitting there like a clump. Neither have no morals, no class. Showed total disrespect.

    December 11, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  2. aertzc

    The people screaming racism are trying too hard. Unless you can find someone who has a problem with Obama taking a selfie but no problem with Cameron or Thorning-Schmidt taking selfies, you really don't have much of an argument.

    December 11, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  3. Average American

    Classic Obama. No real common sense. SELFIE!!!!

    December 11, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  4. WritingOnTheWall

    Whose to say whether Michelle is a fan of selfies, but she's not a fan of her husband disrespecting her, and on the world stage at that. Judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character.

    December 11, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  5. Chris

    I am glad the POTUS had fun and celebrated on the American dime. Anyway, hopefully the POTUS takes another selfie when he signs the bipartisan budget bill that the House will pass on Thursday.

    December 11, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  6. texasfan

    Yes, let's spend days analyzing this and eventually we'll get to the bottom of it!!!

    December 11, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  7. Eddie

    Not exactly the kind of behavior one would expect to see world leaders involved in at this type of event. But then again, I don't know what was going on at the time either, it may have been appropriate. However, the media is making this a big deal and makes our President and therefore America look bad to the rest of the world.

    December 11, 2013 09:47 am at 9:47 am |
  8. greg

    I can't believe the posts by folks here calling those who disapprove of the President's behavior racists. To do this shows an immature level of judgmental insecurity. The President is the head of the most powerful nation in the world. Act like it. Very un-presidential. Nothing to do with race. You don't see Mrs. Obama doing anything but showing respect which is what you are supposed to do at a memorial service. Always a classy lady. Please train your husband to stop embarrassing our nation!

    December 11, 2013 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  9. Ms.Slew

    Maurice Lucas don't look happy.

    December 11, 2013 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  10. Bill

    I'm no Obama fan, but this is ridiculous. All I'm seeing is a lame attempt to embarass the First Lady.

    December 11, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  11. NamePhil Doughtie

    Big deal! A self, please, everyone does it!
    And with the president......also mrs. O could have jumped it.

    December 11, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  12. GM53

    Michelle's face says it all

    December 11, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  13. Troublerunt

    Where's the photo CNN?

    December 11, 2013 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  14. Deb Ed

    Mrs. Obama does not look like a "happy camper" on those pictures.

    December 11, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  15. Poof

    Way to explain and not show the photo!

    December 11, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  16. BOB

    her racism shows more and more everday

    December 11, 2013 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  17. JM

    The people who say that this is inappropriate are the people who spend 90% of their time hating others. How appropriate...

    December 11, 2013 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  18. just-wondering

    Interesting that the comments "supporting" Obama are calling those that think this was not appropriate as racists. Look at Michelle's face. Need anyone say more. Clearly she is quite aware of the situation and thinks this is inappropriate. Are folks calling her a racist?

    December 11, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  19. Ru

    Hello? HELLO? SERIOUSLY? What is everyone up in arms over? It was a lighthearted moment and entirely in line with the atmosphere – the leaders were specifically briefed that this would be a celebration not a sombre occasion. Let the boys and girls – even if they are leaders – have some fun.

    December 11, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  20. Miguel

    hahaha Barack watch out for those white women! They'll get you in trouble all the time.

    I almost feel sorry for the guy having to be with Michelle on the plane ride back. You know she is taking him to the woodshed.

    December 11, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  21. John

    Fake outrage and manufactured controversy. Just something else to rage about to distract from real issues. The media hypes situations and then reports on the reactions of idiots. Pull something out of context and let the fools claim to know what was really happening. There is no real news anymore and the idea of the "Liberal Media" is just another repuplican lie.

    December 11, 2013 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  22. E Michelle

    Unfortunately, the body language that the First Lady is giving indicates she was NOT in a friendly mood with the Prime Minister. Pretty sure the conversation they had afterwards was NOT a nice one. As far as their behavior, for all we know that could have been before the service even started. It's like church in my opinion: Everyone is hugging, laughing, catching up on events and then the moment the muisc begins and the Pastor walks down the aisle every becomes respectful and serious. If that is what happened during the event, then I see nothing wrong with the selfie. If it was going on during the services, then that shows definite lack of decorum on the POTUS and Prime Ministers part.

    December 11, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  23. Randy

    As a person of color and a democrat who voted for our president twice, I find all the “racists this and racists that” comments truly offensive. I refuse to believe that the people who post such nonsense are black Americans.

    December 11, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  24. Cory111

    Reply to Really?
    It's obvious you voted for Romney and just remain a poor loser.
    Hillary 2106

    December 11, 2013 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  25. Jean

    Its not racist to think this behaviour childish and self absorbed especially since two of the ridiculously immature participants are WHITE – so everyone who likes to throw the racist card when anything is said about the great one please, please, I implore you, save it for matters that are worthy of racist accusations. You are truly trivilaizing what it means to be, or accuse someone of being, a racist.

    December 11, 2013 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
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