The Story of the Selfie

From the photographer who took the shot:  The story behind “that selfie”.

Two things are striking:

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.


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.

The first paragraph provides context, which one can take as one wills.

The second I find interesting as an avid photographer, I know full well how a given shot, which can capture less than a second of time, can provide a distorted view of reality.

Indeed, to me one of the most interesting aspects of this story is the story of photographs.  The story of why Cameron, Obama, and Schmidt would want a photograph to commemorate a moment (a fairly common impulse) and the meta way that a a photo of them taking that photo created a broader story.

(And I would say, as one who loves to take photos, the shot of the selfie is a great shot, regardless of anything else.  And, indeed, this whole story show the power of a photograph).

FILED UNDER: US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. JoshB says:

    I thought it to be a humanizing moment. We tend to view our leaders as purely political robots, so candid moments like this make you realize they are sometimes still quite excited about their station in life.

  2. 11B40 says:


    And the CONTEXT for the subsequent seating adjustment ??? A draft perhaps ???

  3. al-Ameda says:

    By the way, I like your collection Steven, very nice.

    Our technology has created a nation of people who seemingly are in, and are documenting, every moment. I personally like the vibe of that picture – it’s what I see people doing everyday, on the ferry, at restaurants, on the sidewalks. at parks, on the square … everywhere.

  4. @al-Ameda: Thanks–kind of you to say.

  5. Jeremy R says:


    I thought it to be a humanizing moment.

    I didn’t find it particularly notable one way or another, though the media’s multi-day obsession w/ it definitely was. Of course, not to be outdone, Murdoch’s NY Post had to be the most over the top in their bottom-feeding:

    The president of the United States, leader of the free world, standard-bearer for everything upright, good and wholesome about the nation he leads, lost his morality, his dignity and his mind, using the solemn occasion of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service Tuesday to act like a hormone-ravaged frat boy on a road trip to a strip bar.

    In front of 91 world leaders, the mourning nation of South Africa and Obama’s clearly furious wife, Michelle, the president flirted, giggled, whispered like a recalcitrant child and made a damn fool of himself at first sight of Denmark’s voluptuously curvy and married prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

    Thorning-Schmidt placed her hands dangerously close to Obama’s side. The president’s cackling head moved inches from the Danish tart’s and yards away from his wife’s. Obama then proceeded to absorb body heat from the Dane, which he won’t be feeling at home for a long time.

    Finally, Obama posed for an iPhone selfie with the Danish hottie and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Only after the damaging photo eruption did Obama get hold of himself and regain a dim memory of his marriage vows. He finally straightened his face and moved away from the gentle gams of the Danish object of his desire.

    Pairing a black suit and blue tie is not inappropriate. Giving your wife grounds for divorce might be seen as otherwise.

    President Obama has some ’splaining to do. To the woman he married. To his daughters. To the people of South Africa. And to the scandalized folks here at home.

    He owes the world an apology.

  6. @Jeremy R: I came across that column earlier this afternoon. One of the more over-the-top things I have read in a while.

  7. Jeremy R says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It had some small value, in that it distilled down to its noxious core the “story” that the more respectable elements of the media had been wallowing in for days. Hopefully it was clarifying moment to some of them.

  8. Todd says:

    (And I would say, as one who loves to take photos, the shot of the selfie is a great shot, regardless of anything else. And, indeed, this whole story show the power of a photograph).

    I agree, when I’m out with my camera at a big event, some of my favorite shots are often scenes of other photographers taking pictures.