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. Lisa

    OMG people are so judgmental! You people need to get a life. It's a freaking picture for God's sake. Really, your underwear is wayyy tooo tight. President Obama is a human being too morons. I would take a selfie with him anywhere.

    December 11, 2013 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  2. kinaalvarez

    Unfortunately the whole stadium is not the president of the United States with an approval rating of approximately 39%. That's the biggest difference, and the behavior opens him up for more criticism which was picked up by BOTH left and right wing media.

    December 11, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  3. Cory111

    It's normal for posters that voted Republican to find fault no matter what our president or first lady might be doing.
    They just can't accept their party has lost the last two presidential elections and will of course lost the next one.
    Hillary 2016
    Cruz/Palin 2016

    December 11, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  4. Phil in KC

    Much ado about nothing IMHO. Although I do think Michelle looks a little jealous. And why not? The Danish PM is pretty good looking for her age. Also, the Mandela funeral was a celebration of his life. People were dancing and singing.
    Same with the Castro handshake – much ado about nothing. You meet another world leader, you shake his hand; it doesn't have to signify anything.

    December 11, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  5. John

    Anyone who has any issue with this is "racist?" Seriously? The same people saying so would have a much different opinion if this were Bush. Does that mean they're the racists?

    December 11, 2013 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  6. Citizenatlarge1

    If this "selfie" was taken during the official proceedings in tribute to Mr. Mandela, it is boorish behavior and a complete lack of etiquette. Again, instead of acknowledging the lack of judgment exhibited by the President in joining the Danish and British Prime Ministers in this distasteful display of Arrogance, the President's supporters reaffirm that they will overlook any and all transgressions by Mr Obama, preferring instead to attribute any criticism of the President to racism and hate. Kudos to the First Lady who always remains a class act.

    December 11, 2013 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  7. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    I take it that you even heard President Obama fort since you heard the conversation between he and the Prime Minister. Go fish.

    December 11, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  8. Dave

    Seriously, why does the media fixate on such obvious irrelevance?

    December 11, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  9. Rick

    I use to be a "Lefty" liberal, but then I graduated, entered the real world and of coarse became a conservative. Its time the adults were back in charge !

    December 11, 2013 10:02 am at 10:02 am |
  10. yolanda

    This was a celebration of Mandela's life, not a funeral service for some tragic accident. The humor here is Michele having her nose out of joint at her husband, something everyone should be able to relate to.....give it a rest.

    December 11, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  11. MichaelF

    Really people.. This is what you have to complain about.. Have you ever noticed that the things people complain about regarding POTUS is the most trivial, childish complaints.. Just an FYI, but you complaining about this, it shows you how great a job POTUS is doing if this is what America has to complain about.. He took a picture.. REALLY PEOPLE.. LOLOL and yes they were celebrating, they were celebrating the life, not death of one of the greatest men to walk this earth..

    December 11, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  12. Joe peel

    Looks like something Paris Hilton or Miley does. Maybe he can show us how he twerks at his next state of the union

    December 11, 2013 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  13. nonPCrealist

    It'a amazing how quickly liberals throw out the race card whenever anyone speaks out against the president. Disagreeing with his dictatorial policy making habits is not being racist. Expecting a certain level of decorum from a Nation's leader is not being racist. Having any opinion that does not directly coincide with the president doesn't make one a racist.

    Being able to formulate your own opinion about his regime might be something worth looking into.

    December 11, 2013 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  14. Phyllis

    If you lived your life as Nelson Mandela did, then there would be reason for celebration not a funeral. A funeral should be a home going celebration.

    It is inappropriate, ignorant, and classless for the keyboard “THUGS” to disrespect President Obama. If you call yourself an American show respect for the leader of our free country.

    December 11, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  15. SJB

    The people here who are calling the indignation at the complete and total lack of respect from these leaders taking a selfie racist are an outrage. Skin color has absolutely NOTHING to do with being disrespectful and inappropriate. Get over yourselves already and hold people accountable for their actions and stop blaming everything on the color of a person's skin. Take responsibility for an unacceptable behavior, call it what it is, and stop claiming that every indictment on someone's behavior is race based. It's this type of reaction that allows racism to continue to run rampant despite the best efforts of those who fight to eliminate it. Once the people who continue to claim racism can start looking past the color of a person's skin and pay attention to the actual behavior of the person, maybe the rest of the world will continue to follow suit. Until then, you're just perpetuating the problem.

    December 11, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  16. hhunter

    Not a big deal. On another note, anyone care to address how attractive the Danish PM is?

    December 11, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  17. Bob Smith

    Strange, my buddy said "the media" was ignoring this story but that if it had been Bush it would be front page news. I'm so confused.

    December 11, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  18. mogran

    When the lady don't like what the guy is doing, you can bet there's gonna be a fight...note the way she inserted herself between them and then turned her body away...from the look on Obama's face I'd say he got the message that he was being rude.

    December 11, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  19. SuzyQ

    I don't think taking selfies during a memorial service is appropriate under any circumstances, Poor judgement period. But I do question if Ronald Reagan would have come under the same criticism had he behaved in the same manner. Where the Obama critics search high and low for the skinniest scrap of anything to tear into, would they have done the same for Reagan? OR would they have called this situation "the Gipper having fun" or "the Gipper having a good laugh with political allies..."

    December 11, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  20. Jon Boner

    Yes, because taking a selfie with two other leaders to cement their relationship is somehow more classless than Senator Ted Cruz, who walked out on Cuban leader Raul Castro's speech at Mandela's memorial. GO GOP!

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  21. Klobie

    This has nothing to do with politics. This is a funeral of an international leader, not a photo-op. It is clear that Mrs. Obama was not involved and didn't look too happy with what was going on. Shame on all three leaders for being disrespectful at Mr. Mandela's funeral.

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  22. Tim John

    Truth is, all you bleeding heart liberals, if a republican president did this, you guys would go nuts

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  23. NoBrow

    This was not a funeral but a celebration of life!! Get real most of yall could careless about Mandela..So please take your hypocracy elsewhere we're not buying it. It's still hurtful to some of yall that a black man is the

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  24. Nerd

    Oh lord, Michele's face is priceless! HAHAH! She is def not a fan!

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  25. Evolved One

    All these people making assumptions about Michelle Obama's state of mind. People are not always smiling when they are captured in an image. This one is not indicative of anything. It is what it is....stop reading so much into it. This gathering was more a celebration than a funeral. There is nothing wrong with this image.

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
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