AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt was responsible for capturing the moment President Obama posed for a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Schmidt insists first lady Michelle Obama wasn’t upset at the time and he is bemoaning all the hype the simple snap has generated.
In the photos, taken at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, it looked as though the president was smiling, taking selfies, and having too much fun with Thorning-Schmidt before Michelle Obama gave the two a stern look.
In another photo it appeared Michelle Obama made the president switch seats so that she was between him and Thorning-Schmidt. Later, the president was photographed kissing his wife’s hand.
Of course, with no back story to accompany the photos, media outlets jumped to their own conclusions, including the New York Post’s Page Six that ran the headline ‘Flirting With Dane-ger: Mrs. O Not Amused by BAM and Pretty PM.”
After all the photos and news stories generated by the incident, the photographer who snapped the flicks decided to speak out. He wrote:
“So here’s the photo, my photo, which quickly lit up the world’s social networks and news websites. The ‘selfie’ of three world leaders who, during South Africa’s farewell to Nelson Mandela, were messing about like kids instead of behaving with the mournful gravitas one might expect.
“In general on this blog, photojournalists tell the story behind a picture they’ve taken. I’ve done this for images from Pakistan, and India, where I am based. And here I am again, but this time the picture comes from a stadium in Soweto, and shows people taking a photo of themselves. I guess it’s a sign of our times that somehow this image seemed to get more attention than the event itself. Go figure.
“So Obama took his place amid these leaders who’d gathered from all corners of the globe. Among them was British Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as a woman who I wasn’t able to immediately identify. I later learned it was the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt. I’m a German-Colombian based in India, so I don’t feel too bad I didn’t recognize her! At the time, I thought it must have been one of Obama’s many staffers. Anyway, suddenly this woman pulled out her mobile phone and took a photo of herself smiling with Cameron and the U.S. president. I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honor 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 U.S. or not. We are in Africa.
“I 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.
“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 behavior 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.
“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.
“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. -Richard Schmidt | AFP”