By Ashley Killough
(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?
“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.
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.”
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