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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

‘Selfie’ of Obama Was Misinterpreted, Photographer Says

President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain posed for a picture with Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark on Tuesday during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse â€" Getty Images President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain posed for a picture with Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark on Tuesday during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.

This is an era when one honest image can ignite viral misinterpretation. So an Agence France-Presse photographer, Roberto Schmidt, has provided invaluable context for his photograph of a grinning President Obama joining two prime ministers in taking a snapshot of themselves at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony.

The photograph was one of the most widely shared images to emerge from the ceremony in South Africa on Tuesday, and quickly became the focus of online commentary. It shows Mr. Obama leaning sideways toward Denmark’s prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as they posed for a camera phone picture with David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain.

The reactions included criticism that the leaders were being disrespectful and attempts to decipher the meaning behind Michelle Obama’s expression.

On Wednesday, Mr. Schmidt explained what went on before and after that single moment interpreted in isolation. He was replying, he wrote, because he saw how that one image out of hundreds Agence France-Presse published “lit up” social media networks.

“I guess it’s a sign of our times that somehow this image seemed to get more attention than the event itself,” he wrote. “Go figure.”

He continued, in part:

Anyway, suddenly this woman pulled out her mobile phone and took a photo of herself smiling with Cameron and the U.S. president. I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honor 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 U.S. 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 behavior 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.

Mr. Schmidt’s descriptions of the event’s “carnival atmosphere” were similar to the observations my colleagues Nicholas Kulish, Lydia Polgreen and Alan Cowell have reported, saying the sometimes “rambunctious national memorial ceremony” for Mr. Mandela on Tuesday was followed on Wednesday by a “more muted” event in which the South African leader was lying in state.

On Wednesday, back in Britain in the House of Commons, Mr. Cameron made light of the self-photograph, referring to the Kinnock family. Ms. Thorning-Schmidt is the daughter-in-law of Neil Kinnock, the former leader of the Labour Party, the rival of Mr. Cameron’s Tory Party.

“But in my defense I’d say that Nelson Mandela played an extraordinary role in his life and in his death in bringing people together,” Mr. Cameron said. “And so, of course, when a member of the Kinnock family asked me for a photograph, I thought it was only polite to say yes.”

On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron briefly referred to the snapshot in this U.K. Parliament video.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.