Mandela Memorial Photographer Defends Obama's "Selfie"

"Photos can lie," AFP photographer says of moment.

By An Phung
|  Wednesday, Dec 11, 2013  |  Updated 12:26 PM CDT
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Mandela Memorial Photographer Defends Obama's "Selfie"

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama (R) and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a picture with Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (C) next to US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on December 5 at age 95.

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The photojournalist who captured President Barack Obama snapping a self portrait with the leaders of Britain and Denmark at Nelson Mandela's memorial service said the "selfie" seen around the world shouldn't be panned as inappropriate.

Agence France-Presse photographer Robert Schmidt said in blog post Wednesday titled "The story behind 'that selfie'" that the moment was not as sordid as some in the media have made it out to be.

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"For me, the behavior of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural," Schmidt said. "I see nothing to complain about, and probably would have done the same in their place."

The photographer said Obama had just delivered his Mandela eulogy and took his seat among the other world leaders who descended on Soccer Stadium for the memorial service. Schmidt said he recognized British Prime Minister David Cameron, but did not immediately know the woman sitting to the right of Obama.

The woman, who turned out to be Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, pulled out her smartphone while Obama and Cameron huddled up for the selfie shot. First lady Michelle Obama appears on the right of the image looking straight ahead, presumably at the events unfolding at the festive service.

"All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honor their departed leader," Schmidt wrote. "It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid."

The photo has taken the news world and social media sites by storm. Some news sources have dubbed it "Selfie-Gate," citing the world leaders' lack of decorum at a serious event and Michelle Obama's seemingly peeved look as justification for the backlash and criticism.

The U.K.'s Daily Mail published the story with a headline that reads "Twitter fury over Dave's selfie with Obama and a flirty Dane." Documentarian Michael Moore wrote in a tweet "Obama, Cameron & the Danish prime min goofing around & taking a selfie @ the memorial. Michelle's reaction priceless." Both New York tabloids the Daily News and New York Post splashed on their front pages images of Obama's supposed flirting.

Schmidt said he captured the selfie moment two hours into the ceremony and the event was expected to last another two hours. "The atmosphere was totally relaxed -- I didn't see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the U.S. or not. We are in Africa," he said.

He went on to explain that there is more than meets the eye to the first lady's facial expression.

"I later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture," he wrote. "But photos can lie."

A few seconds earlier, Michelle Obama was joking with those around her, including Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt, he explained. "Her stern look was captured by chance."

Thorning-Schmidt also defended the selfie on Wednesday, saying "There was a lot of pictures, many pictures were taken of Obama and I just thought it was kind of funny and it shows when heads of states meet we also are just human beings having a good time."

Schmidt agreed that it was "interesting to see politicians in a human light" but he bemoaned the fact that such "trivialities" took away from the main event. He also said he was surprised that such a snap moment would garner so much attention.

"I took these photos totally spontaneously, without thinking about what impact they might have," Schmidt said.


 

Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, left, chats with first lady Michelle Obama during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

President Barack Obama jokes with Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, left, as first lady Michelle Obama looks on at right during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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