The big news from yesterday’s Mandela memorial was not a rousing speech or particularly moving tribute. It was a photo, captured late in the ceremony, of David Cameron, Obama, and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt—faces smushed together in a mid-memorial selfie. As soon as the photo appeared online, the internet pounced. “Selfie Diplomacy,” trumpeted NBC News. “President Takes Selfie at Mandela Funeral. Inappropriate?” wondered the Christian Science Monitor. “Critics Click Over Obama Selfie Saga,” the Boston Herald declared.
Roberto Schmidt is the AFP photographer, currently the agency’s chief photographer for South Asia, who captured that infamous snap. Reached by phone in South Africa, he sighed heavily. “Why do people care about a selfie?” he said. “This is a sad reflection of our society.” He’d gone to photograph the memorial with a team of ten photographers. They moved some 500 images on the wire. “Good images, nice, strong images," he said. “Images of South Africans dancing, smiling, chanting, which is the way they express mourning for a man they consider to be their father.” It was a long ceremony; he took many photographs of world leaders giving speeches and South Africans grieving. And suddenly he saw the Danish prime minister lift her phone to take a photo of her face alongside seatmates Obama and Cameron. Schmidt dutifully clicked away. “They’re in front of you, this happens, you take the picture,” he said. “But I saw so many good images from that memorial. And the picture that’s getting played is the president in a selfie. That’s kind of a bummer.”
One of the AFP images Roberto Schmidt wishes would go viral.
It’s easy to see why the photo blew up on the web. There are plenty of apparent dynamics to parse. Cameron leans in like a goofy uncle trying to join the party. Obama bites his lip coolly. Thorning-Schmidt, mouth slightly agape, has the self-consciously expectant face of so many selfie-takers before her. And off to one side, Michelle appears to be fuming but is probably just not paying attention. “They control so much of their image,” said Schmidt. “But then they do something like this, and it’s like, ‘Oh my god.’”
What is it about selfies of powerful people that instantly grab the national imagination? Sasha and Malia took one at their dad’s inauguration that stirred up a similar frenzy. Ditto for the photo Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton took at a state department dinner, dubbed “BFF Selfie Photo” by Gawker. It’s partly the up the chin angle, the awkward feigning of spontaneity, the idea that these luminaries couldn’t find some idle lackey to take the photo for them.
Schmidt, for one, is not amused. He’s photographed selfies-in-action before—though just of friends; never of a politician or someone so high-profile. He knew that this photo would be a hit the moment he took it. “Selfies are a fad, and people love fads,” he said wearily. “But I never thought,” he said, “it was going to grow legs this long.”