Leaders’ selfie at Mandela memorial raises eyebrows

AFP, SOWETO, South Africa

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 6

US President Barack Obama may have moved the masses attending former South African president Nelson Mandela’s memorial service with his stirring eulogy on Tuesday, but it was his grinning “selfie” with the Danish and British prime ministers that set social networks abuzz.

In a candid moment captured by Agence France-Presse photographer Roberto Schmidt, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt can be seen holding up her smartphone, with Obama lending a helping hand, as they pose for a picture with their British counterpart David Cameron, all three of them smiling broadly in their seats at Soweto’s World Cup stadium.

US first lady Michelle Obama, sitting to the left of her husband, does not join in, keeping her eyes firmly trained on the podium where world leaders were paying tribute to Mandela.

The selfie was quickly picked up by major international news outlets and went viral on social media sites, with many questioning whether the moment of mirth was appropriate for the occasion.

“Is This The Most Important Selfie Of 2013?” headlined the US-based social news Web site Buzzfeed, noting that Michelle Obama seemed “not amused” by the impromptu photoshoot.

Cameron’s Downing Street office said it had “no comment” on the photo, while the White House also made no comment. There was no immediate reaction from Copenhagen.

The AFP photographer who captured the leaders in their group shot said his picture showed the dignitaries in a rare unscripted moment.

“It was interesting to see politicians in a human light because usually when we see them it is in such a controlled environment. Maybe this would not be such an issue if we, as the press, would have more access to dignitaries and be able to show they are human as the rest of us,” Roberto Schmid said.

However, he said he feared the photo’s impact could overshadow what was “a celebration for an obviously exceptional person.”

“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 overshadowed everything else,” he said. “I think it’s a sad reflection on how sometimes we focus, as a society, on trivial everyday happenings.”

Meanwhile, the White House on Tuesday played down Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial, saying it went no further than pleasantries and does not signal a policy change.

“He really didn’t do more than exchange greetings with [dignitaries on the podium] on his way to speak, it wasn’t a substantive discussion,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama.

Additional reporting by Reuters