The widespread bewilderment over President Obama’s smiling and posing for a “selfie” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service this week baffled Roberto Schmidt.

Schmidt is the photographer who captured the now-famous shot of Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt [no relation to the photographer] posing for a selfie – the term for photos people take of themselves with cell phone cameras – in the midst of Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa.

After listening to days of debates about whether the smiles and selfie were inappropriate in a solemn event such as the memorial service, Schmidt wrote a blog post in which he said the assumptions surrounding his photo were just plain wrong.

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.

- Roberto Schmidt, AFP photographer

“So here’s the photo, my photo, which quickly lit up the world’s social networks and news websites,” wrote Schmidt, who described himself as “a German-Colombian based in India.” “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.”

The characterization of the “selfie” as a selfish, inconsiderate and disrespectful act in the middle of an event where people were solemn and mourning, Schmidst explained, missed the fact that the service was actually festive for most of the several hours it lasted. 

The smiles and abandonment of protocol in the moment he captured, he said, were in sync with the mood and the conduct of the crowd at the service.

“All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader,” wrote Schmidt, who is a photographer for Agence France-Presse (AFP), a French news agency.

“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.”

Schmidt also took issue with the contrast the public made between Obama’s seemingly cheerful demeanor at the service and the First Lady’s mood, which in the photo had her appearing serious, even annoyed.

“Photos can lie,” he wrote. “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.”

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