The silly ‘selfie’ that shook the world


The silly 'selfie' that shook the world Barack Obama speaks with Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt as his wife Michelle looks on during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Devember 10, 2013. (Reuters photo)
The silly ‘selfie’ that shook the world
Barack Obama speaks with Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt as his wife Michelle looks on during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Devember 10, 2013. (Reuters photo)

WASHINGTON: It’s a selfie that shook the world — mostly the tabloid and online world. An animated self-portrait (“selfie” in Internet argot) of US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron taken by Denmark’s blonde leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday titillated the prissy and the prurient across the world, before the photographer who captured the moment said it was no big deal and trashed modern-day obsession with trivialities.

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It all began when within minutes after the Mandela memorial service in South Africa, photos surfaced of a grinning Obama and Cameron on either side of Thorning-Schmidt, as she cheerfully took a self-portrait of the trio. The US president’s wife, Michelle Obama, was next to Obama, staring ahead stone-facedly on what many saw as a serious occasion.

Thorning-Schmidt, is married to British leader Neil Kinnock’s son, who was not at the service. Within minutes, the photo raced around the world, inviting snide comments about its playful nature during a grave occasion, even as the Obamas boarded Air Force One for the long flight back home.

By the time Air Force One landed outside Washington (with wags wondering if Obama would emerge with a black eye and an arm in a sling), the tabloid and online press had a field day with the photos. “No Selfie Respect” read the headline in Sun, that peerless paean to accuracy. “Flirting with Dane-ger” said its New York counterpart Post, also from the Murdoch stable. Twitter erupted in condemnation with one Tweeter writing: “What selfish morons take a ‘selfie’ at a memorial service? Oh yeah that’s right, Barack Obama and David Cameron.”

While the Obamas were still in transit on the way back from South Africa (their predecessors Laura and George Bush were flying with them), the photographer who captured the sequence of events said he saw nothing wrong in the episode and the world leaders “were simply acting like human beings, like me and you.”

“I took these photos totally spontaneously, without thinking about what impact they might have. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium,” explained Roberto Schmidt, the AFP photographer who is based in New Delh and who flew to South Africa to cover the event. “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. it makes me a little sad we are so obsessed with day-to-day trivialities,” he added.

Schmidt said he later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture, but “photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.” He said he initially didn’t recognize the Danish leader and thought she was one of Obama’s staffers.

Critics of the US president, whose approval ratings are declining rapidly mainly on account of the healthcare fiasco, had a field day with the episode, coming as it did on the heels of his handshake with President of Raul Castro of Cuba, a country widely demonized in the US senator John McCain, an old guard of the establishment who lost the 2008 Presidential election to Obama, went so far as to compare the handshake to British leader Neville Chamberlain’s infamous handshake with Hitler.

However, White House officials explained that the handshake was spontaneous rather than pre-planned, and happened because all the world leaders were gathered on stage as Obama bounded up and Raul Castro just happened to be first among them. In any event, the selfie flap eventually superceded the handshake hoopla in an age where leaders are often framed in one fleeting moment.

Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola is aNaija247news' Southwest editor. He's based in Lagos and writes on the Yoruba Nation political issues, news and investigative reports

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