Unless you were living under a social media or headlining news rock yesterday, you’ve probably seen these images of President Obama and a not-so-pleased looking Michelle.
In the photos, taken at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, it looked as though the President was goofin’ off, taking selfies, and having too much fun with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning before Michelle gave the two that stare. (You know, the one we all know so well in African-American households when we are cutting up in front of our parents). Eventually, it looked as though Michelle made the President switch seats so that she was in the middle of he and Helle Thorning, and later, the President was snapped kissing Michelle’s hand.
Of course, with no back story to accompany the photos, the media ran wild with headlines, including the New York Post’s Page Six who ran the front page headline ‘Flirting With Dane-ger: Mrs. O Not Amused by BAM and Pretty PM.” After the photos made it’s rounds and were flipped into various news stories, the actual photographer who snapped the flicks decided to speak out. He wrote:
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.
[...] 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.
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.
I took these photos totally spontaneously, without thinking about what impact they might have. 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. I see nothing to complain about, and probably would have done the same in their place. 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.
It was interesting to see politicians in a human light because usually when we see them it is in such a controlled environment. 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.
I confess too that it makes me a little sad we are so obsessed with day-to-day trivialities, instead of things of true importance-Richard Schmidt | AFP
Meanwhile, journalist Roxanne Gay wrote a great piece over at Salon titled “The Media’s Michelle Obama problem: What a selfie says about our biases.” In the article, she questioned the media’s motives of continuously highlighting photos that paint Michelle as an ABW:
More than anything, the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry. The black woman is ever at the ready to aggressively defend her territory. She is making her disapproval known. She never gets to simply be.
Meanwhile, the Internet is speculating about Michelle Obama’s mind-set, her motivations and the state of her marriage because if a married black man, always on the prowl even if he is the commander in chief, is seen smiling next to an attractive white woman, well, that’s curtains for the marriage. The white she-devil strikes again! The first lady can’t win. Last month, Michelle Obama was a “feminist nightmare.” Today she is angry and on the verge of losing her marriage. We can only imagine what tomorrow will bring.And of course, there is another image that simply isn’t being shared with the same frequency or enthusiasm—one of Michelle Obama sitting with her husband and the Danish prime minister laughing and smiling openly. We are selective in what we choose to see. This image is being ignored because it doesn’t fit the narrative we want. There is also an image shared by Goldie Taylor, of Laura Bush looking unamused while her husband speaks to a beautiful woman in the row behind them. Is she disapproving? Is she worried about her marriage? Is she “having none of it”? Or is she just sitting?
Though in most cases, the selfie allows us to turn the camera on ourselves, President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a mirror, reflecting the biases people may not even realize they hold.
Read more over at Salon: