The Slatest

Photographer Tells the Story Behind the Obama Selfie, Laments We All Made a Big Deal About It

This combo of pictures shows US President Barack Obama (R) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) posing for a selfie photo with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (C) during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013

Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Roberto Schmidt, the AFP photojournalist who snapped a photo of President Obama and a pair of other world leaders posing for a three-way selfie at the Mandela memorial, has a blog post up today detailing the story behind his photo that sent the Internet into a tizzy on Tuesday. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing bout Schmidt’s account is that he says he didn’t think he had captured anything particularly newsworthy—a position he still holds one day later—as he was snapping the photos of a playful Obama:


I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. 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. …


I took these photos totally spontaneously, without thinking about what impact they might have. At the time, I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you. 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. 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. The AFP team worked hard to display the reaction that South African people had for the passing of someone they consider as a father. We moved about 500 pictures, trying to portray their true feelings, and this seemingly trivial image seems to have eclipsed much of this collective work. …

I confess too that it makes me a little sad we are so obsessed with day-to-day trivialities, instead of things of true importance.

It’s also worth pointing out that Schmidt refutes the general narrative that Michelle Obama was upset that her husband was taking part in the selfie. “In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, [British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt] included,” the photographer writes. “Her stern look was captured by chance.”

You can read his full post here.