Scandalous Obama 'Selfie' Photo Lacks Context, Photographer Says

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Left to Right: British PM David Cameron, Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. - AFP
  • AFP
  • Left to Right: British PM David Cameron, Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

A picture's supposed to be worth 1,000 words, but what if they're the wrong words?

That's what Agence France-Presse photographer Roberto Schmidt is telling people after his photo of U.S. President Barack Obama taking a "selfie" with, respectively, British and Danish PMs David Cameron and Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela's memorial service while a thoroughly disgusted-looking First Lady Michelle Obama looks on.

The photo has inspired backlash against the politicians, with a CNN columnist asking readers if the photo was "harmless or tasteless" and Fox News characterizing it as instigating an "international incident." Various outlets have suggested the moment represents an instance of insensitivity, a disconnect between the developed and developing worlds, and a source of tension between the President and the First Lady.

But in an AFP blog post, the photographer who snapped the now infamous photo wrote that those characterizations lack context—that the atmosphere at the memorial service was far from somber.

"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 U.S. or not. We are in Africa."

Mrs. Obama's stern expression is similarly deceptive:

"[P]hotos can lie," wrote Schmidt. "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."