Thursday, December 12, 2013


The story behind "that selfie" -- a testy clash of cultures. Never the twain shall meet (I don't think.)

(AFP Photo / Roberto Schmidt)
US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a picture with Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt next to US First Lady Michelle Obama during the memorial service for South African former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. (AFP Photo / Roberto Schmidt)
Cliquez pour la version française By Roberto Schmidt

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.

Anyway, I arrived in South Africa with several other AFP journalists to cover the farewell and funeral ceremonies for Nelson Mandela. We were in the Soccer City stadium in Soweto, under a driving rain. I’d been there since the crack of dawn and when I took this picture, the memorial ceremony had already been going on for more than two hours.
From the podium, Obama had just qualified Mandela as a “giant of history who moved a nation towards justice." After his stirring eulogy, America’s first black president sat about 150 metres across from where I was set up. He was surrounded by other foreign dignitaries and I decided to follow his movements with the help of my 600 mm x 2 telephoto lens.
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 US president. 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. We are in Africa.

Note from Verne:

The man who took that picture, and others, is Roberto Schmidt of AFP Photo. You've see Schmidt's photos, and heard something about the big shemozzle that has erupted as a result.

I have my own thoughts about it all -- when have I not? So I felt compelled, despite possible vehement objections, to have a go at it myself.

Somehow it seemed to me to be provocative to feature just one of the frames extraordinaire, with a gaggle of comments they elicited. I think this is funny, and edifying:

  • 1 From trudi - 11/12/2013, 13:32
    Hello I am a journalist at BBC radio in the UK - would you be wiling to do a quick phone interview about this please this afternoon - please email thanks

  • 2 From OrangeMoon - 11/12/2013, 13:32
    How to alienate and irritate Africans: "The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa."
    Whatever do you mean? Nothing like some subliminal racism thrown in to give 'context' to your story. Totally unnecessary and offensive.

  • 3 From Nicolas Congote - 11/12/2013, 13:39
    Roberto, es Nicolás Congote de EL TIEMPO en Colombia, cómo puedo contactarte para hablar sobre tu trabajo. Mi correo es Abrazo. (** I think this was from the clueless signer for the deaf.)

  • 4 From Lily Yamamoto - 11/12/2013, 13:41
    No comment. it very natural, at least is a happy farewell ceremony to Mandiba. I am sure he wouldn't mind at all. Let us pray; may he soul rest in peace in heaven with Lord. Amen

  • 5 From zizi - 11/12/2013, 14:08
    A picture worth a thousand words!

  • 7 From Kathy - 11/12/2013, 14:14
    No problem the photo was taken, but those three looked childish, no more no less, but that's a shame from world leaders. However, from Cameron it is normal behaviour.

  • 9 From kayhag - 11/12/2013, 14:35
    Thanks so much for your important work, and for this context. The absurd obsession with the superficial = "please distract us from pondering the meaning of Mandela to our own lives and to those who represent and govern us."
    Thanks again.

  • 10 From EmC - 11/12/2013, 14:45
    Well said. I think Madiba would be laughing if he saw the image! He was a very relaxed and down to earth person. This hullabaloo about the selfie is mis-directed attention. In my opinion its only fitting that dignitaries of this caliber felt relaxed enough to take a selfie at Madiba's memorial.
  • 11 From Peter du Toit - 11/12/2013, 14:52 

    Thank you for giving the context! "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." Which is exactly why they felt they could also relax!
  • 12 From Peter Hjelmbak - 11/12/2013, 15:07
    Fantastic photo - 1 in a billion. I have been defending that photo for the whole day. And I love the story behind it, that I just read! I think it is great and I think Mr. Mandela would have loved that picture! Black/white, woman/man - all equal, having fun and a great laugh. That is the kind of leaders I want to rule the world and NOT some angry old white men, hiding in a dark room! GREAT lets have some more REAL people and not stressed out politicians!

  • 13 From Ayo - 11/12/2013, 15:15
    I was totally with you, until the offensive "We are in Africa." What do you mean by "We are in Africa"? Do you even realize what you just wrote? Ways to insult a whole continent!!! I totally lost respect for you. Yet I am almost sure that you lack the intellectual sophistication to comprehend the offensive nature of that statement. This is so pathetic.

  • 15 From Guest - 11/12/2013, 15:20
    Can you explain why Obama and Michelle ended up switching seats?

  • 16 From Ana Pessoa - 11/12/2013, 15:57 
     Obama, Cameron and the beautiful blonde are not mere mortals.
    They are representatives of their countries, representatives of a people, of millions. There is a protocol - respect and dignity - when we go to the last farewell of a man. Especially when this man was huge. The selfie shows a normal attitude at the wrong time.The press is correct in questioning this attitude.

  • 17 From Scott - 11/12/2013, 15:58
    @OrangeMan and @Ayo: "We are in Africa" is not an insult.
    Mr. Schmidt was explaining the context of the memorial service. As he said, it was a four hour celebration with jubilant crowds, music, and dancing.
    No one would memorialize a national leader that way in the US, UK, or Denmark, where the custom is to be somber and quiet during memorial services. But this celebration was not held in the US, UK, or Denmark. It was held in Africa, and South Africans are entitled to memorialize Mr. Mandela as they believe he would want to be remembered.
    Anyone attending should NOT be judged though the lens of a somber Western memorial service. This was not that kind of service. This was a celebration, a celebration that was proudly and unapologetically [South] African.

  • 20 From Yoreney - 11/12/2013, 16:01
    when i saw the picture i thought Michelle Obama looked pissed because they were taking a selfie without her. Then I saw another picture. This time Mr Obama was kissing her hand, and it really looked like he was apologizing for taking that selfie without her. LOL.

  • 21 From Guest - 11/12/2013, 16:02
    Anybody there complaining about "we are in Africa" being racist: I don't see why! the context in which he puts the statement clearly indicates that he wants to point out this is the way Africans part from their beloved ones. I can't imagine people behaving that way in America, Europe, Asia, Australia, although I may be wrong. But I fail to see where he insults anybody. I think this is a great article!

  • 40 From Belloc - 11/12/2013, 17:04
    Respect for the dead has nothing to do with this. The dead communist Mandela deserves no more public decorum than the burnt corpse of Goebbels. It's about the tastelessness of two middle age clowns in positions of responsibility going ga-ga over a hottie, and one of them in front of his wife. It might be Africa, but in America not to mention Britain, such buffoonish behavior on such an occasion is deemed disrespectful and juvenile. And Obama is after all American...isn't he?

    Verne: So, the ballots are in -- a scattered few hanging chads, but aside from that natural deficiency, it's clear who's thinking what.

    And what do I think? Well, I think that, if we can't agree on stuff like this, let's see what the U.N. can do with the issue. Check that. They haven't done anything with any issue. Looks like we're still stuck.

    But I do think Obama showed disrespect for Mandela -- based on normal, acceptable behavior at a memorial service in America, Great Britain, or Denmark. Which is where I feel comfortable.