Obama takes selfie at Mandela memorial. Inappropriate?

President Obama was caught taking a selfie with the prime ministers of Britain and Denmark at the Nelson Mandela memorial in South Africa, creating a small uproar online.

Matt Dunham/AP
President Obama jokes with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (l.) as first lady Michelle Obama looks on (r.) during the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa, Tuesday.

President Obama took a selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt while seated in the audience at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa on Tuesday.

Yes, you’re right, that’s a lead sentence that we did not really envision writing when we got up this morning, but we go where the news flows, and there you are.

Photos of the smiling trio taking their self-portrait are all over the Internet at the moment. Many of them show Michelle Obama looking off to one side, as if she can’t believe the misbehavior of her seatmates.

Some critics thought that the world leader photo-op was in poor taste given the context. “So Obama & Cameron & Danish PM displaying similar levels of gravitas today as 14 yr olds on the school bus,” was a typical Twitter comment.

Some journalists thought the mass coverage of the photo event was worse than the event itself.

“You guys know this makes the media look bad, right?” tweeted Politico’s media columnist Dylan Byers.

At the risk of looking bad, though, we’ve got these thoughts.

It was a memorial, not a funeral. The massive event was meant to celebrate the great life of Mr. Mandela. There was singing, dancing, jumping throughout the crowd. When Mr. Obama spoke, spectators swayed and clapped behind him. The atmosphere was anything but stiff and funereal.

Leave Michelle out of it. Look, it’s impossible to really tell if she’s peeved, not paying attention, or (most likely) just got snapped at the micro-second she was looking in another direction. We’ve seen enough photo meetings to know it’s easy to construct a narrative where none exists. We don’t really have any idea what the first lady is thinking at the moment.

The president is always on stage. For those who think the shot irrelevant, we’d say the US president is always in the public eye. His every public move is captured on film, his every public action surveyed for possible meaning. Look no further than Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at the memorial; was he too friendly to a repressive Cuban leader? Was he just he trying to put Mr. Castro off-balance? Was it just a handshake? Inquiring minds want to know.

Most presidential moments are predictable, preplanned. The selfie moment was not. It was a bit of genuine ad hoc get-togetherness among world leaders. It’s interesting to see that such powerful people can act like three friends at a sporting event. The media’s not going to cover that? Right.

It's all about us. However, we will note that the US media is (unsurprisingly) US-centric, so wherever the president goes, the story is framed through their experience. At Mandela’s memorial that means Obama’s speech and action will be the central aspect of many American stories.

This provincialism can be seen in the fact that some US broadcasters at first said the woman in the selfie shot was unidentified. Then some expressed surprise the Danish PM was a woman.

Ms. Thorning-Schmidt has in fact been the head of government of Denmark, a NATO ally, since 2011. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg is also a woman, by the way. Then there’s Angela Merkel, German chancellor.

So perhaps a northern European leader who is a women shouldn’t be, you know, a shock?

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