That Split Second Selfie

Published 8 years ago

The state memorial service held in the driving rain for Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg drew the eyes of the world. There were thousands of South Africans and more than 91 heads of state. It also drew droves of journalists, with superzoom lenses, all vying for the picture of the day.

It was an odd image that attracted headlines; three world leaders messing around on a smartphone. I believe the saying, the camera never lies, is misconstrued and this image shows how pictures are all about perception.

The moment revolved around a selfie taken by United States president Barack Obama with Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British prime minister David Cameron. On the social media side, people thought Michelle Obama, in the background, looked jealous of the Danish head of state; there was even talk of a split.

AFP’s Roberto Schmidt, the man who took the picture, has a different story to tell.

“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,” Schmidt writes on his blog.

My view is the context is just as important as the image. People at home read far too much into Michelle’s face. In the picture, she comes across as a distant wife, cold towards the fun. It is an easy assumption to make from the comfort of a couch.

Most of the time, wire photographers write generic captions and send through their photos in bulk to put on mass-media sites. Editors, hundreds of kilometers away, then choose a photo from the event. Sometimes, this leads to people losing the essence and taking the image on face value.

The caption for this image does not explain what Schmidt thinks Michelle is doing, leaving it for the reader to guess. This leaves the picture open to interpretation. For all the reader knows, Michelle could have merely been cold and wet in the rain.

The reality was, as the photographer bears, that Michelle was not distant at all; though the image alluded to this.

This is a classic case of how a photograph can mislead and also shows the importance to gathering the context of the image.   FL