Obama’s Selfie: Much Ado About Nothing?

Posted on December 27, 2013.

The controversy caused by the three leaders’ self-portrait was unjustified, confirmed the photographer who witnessed the scene.

“Michelle Obama’s stern look was captured by chance.” In just a few words, Roberto Schmidt, an AFP photographer, deflates the media frenzy created by Barack Obama, David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s selfie.

Here are the facts. On Tuesday, Dec. 10, during the tribute to Nelson Mandela in Soweto, the three leaders were photographed taking a selfie, a self-portrait taken on a mobile phone. This seemingly trivial shot caused a huge outcry on Twitter. Some Internet users pointed to a lack of decency shown by the leaders on a solemn occasion, while others took Michelle Obama’s apparent isolation as evidence of a domestic quarrel between the American presidential couple.

In the wake of the Twittersphere’s outcry, the media seized the topic and the incident made the front page of many British publications on Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday, Roberto Schmidt, head of AFP Photo in South Asia, confirmed on the agency’s blog “Making-of” that the truth of the moment is less scandalous. Equipped with a 600 mm x 2 mega telephoto lens, he relentlessly snapped the U.S. president and was present for the whole affair. Michelle Obama’s pout? Sheer coincidence.

“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.”

Schmidt, the photographer of the controversial picture, placed Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt’s behavior into the festive context of the farewell to Mandela, which took place on Tuesday in the FNB stadium in Soweto, where there were more smiles than sullen faces.

“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.”

This testimony was confirmed by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, whose reaction was relayed on Wednesday by the Danish newspaper, the Copenhagen Post.

Referring to the singing and dancing which gave the ceremony a festive air, the prime minister stressed that “the atmosphere was of course melancholic, but ultimately it was a celebration of a man who lived to be 95 years old, and who managed to accomplish so much in his life.” She added, “It also shows that even when leaders meet, we are also normal people who have a good time together,” clarifying that the selfie produced a “really fun” picture.

For his part, David Cameron argued that he could not refuse a photo to a Kinnock family member — Helle Thorning-Schmidt is married to Neil Kinnock’s son, the former leader of the Labour party.

Roberto Schmidt suggested that these spontaneous pictures have possibly created such a public commotion because they clash with the usually controlled public relations regarding important political leaders: “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.”

The photographer regrets this “buzz.” First, because it overshadowed the hundreds of photos provided by the AFP photographers that catch the the “true feelings” of South Africans in a moment of paying tribute to their national hero. Then, because it is a reflection of a time where we focus “on day-to-day trivialities, instead of things of true importance.”

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