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Dec 19 / King Kaufman

Photos can lie: The lesson of Obama’s “selfie” at Mandela service

Remember the Selfie Seen ‘Round the World? It was a huge story last week, but that was last week, so you may have forgotten it by now.

President Obama posed for a selfie photo with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Next to the smiling trio, Michelle Obama looked stern and unhappy. Media outlets generally described this look as an “icy stare.”

“The tsk-tsk-ing could be heard across continents,” reported.

A few reactions:

Fox News: Obama creates international incident with ‘selfie’ at Mandela service

ABC News: President Obama Poses for Selfie at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service

The Telegraph (U.K.): Selfie-gate: Why do Cameron and Obama feel the need to behave like idiots?

New York Daily News: President Obama cluelessly joins Danish Prime Minister’s selfie fun as wife makes ‘the face’

Referring to the allegedly mentally unstable man who used fake sign-language from the stage at the memorial service, Daily News columnist Linda Stasi wrote:

Even the signing imposter was a minor glitch compared to watching normally reserved President Obama and Brit PM David Cameron act like nerds around a pretty girl, as they yucked it up and posed for selfies with Danish dish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Worse, even though everyone else in the world understood immediately that Michelle Obama was making “the face” at her hubby while he was making eyes at Helle, he cluelessly continued giggling with the Great Dane. Not good.

Media Matters for America noted that in their coverage of the Mandela service, the cable networks CNN, Fox News and MSNBC focused a majority of their segments on either the selfie or on Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro. (Note: CNN and Bleacher Report are both owned by Time-Warner.)

There was just one problem with “Selfie-gate”: The whole world misinterpreted the famous photo.

That’s accoring to Roberto Schmidt of L’Agence France-Presse, the photographer who took the picture. Here’s how he described the scene on the AFP blog:

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.

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.

Photos can lie. If you take nothing else from this incident, take that: Photos can lie.

It’s easy to see a picture online, jump to the obvious conclusion that your first impression leads you to, and be completely wrong. It happened to Linda Stasi of the Daily News, but I’m singling her out unfairly. It happened to people all over the world, to legions on social media.

More from Schmidt:

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 behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural … 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.

That’s something else to take from all this. Not only can you look at a photo and get the wrong impression, but the whole world can too. Just because “everyone” seems to be interpreting a photo the same way you are, that doesn’t mean you’re interpreting it correctly.

In this case, before psychoanalyzing the Obamas’ relationship through one image, some good questions to ask might have been: Were there quotes from anyone witnessing tension or arguing among the couple? Was there video of Michelle Obama looking upset? Were there other photos or was there video circulating that day that showed other people in a celebratory mood?

Here, courtesy of PolicyMic, are 8 Photos You Didn’t See From Obama’s Trip to South Africa.



  • Robert Wood

    Photos can absolutely lie.
    Just ask Chuck Bednarik about the enduring image/incident from his Hall of Fame career. Golden boy Frank Gifford of the NY Giants goes over the middle to make a catch and Concrete Charlie crushes him, causing a fumble which Bednarik’s Eagles recover at a crucial juncture of the game. Bednarik celebrates the recovery, and a photographer catches the celebration.
    The photo also shows Gifford lying motionless at Bednarik’s feet. Gifford was knocked out cold by the hit, before he even hit the ground. The image implies that Bednarik was gloating over the hit, and disrespecting the fallen Gifford in the process. This assumption follows Bednarik to this day.