Barack Obama
Roberto Schmidt, the AFP photographer who captured President Obama's now-infamous "funeral selfie," claims that Michelle Obama was never angry during the service, and rejects the notion that the president's behavior was inappropriate. Reuters

The photographer who snapped the picture of President Obama and a pair of other world leaders in the midst of a now-infamous “funeral selfie” claims that the image is misleading.

Roberto Schmidt, a photographer for the Agence France-Presse, captured an image of President Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron as they took a “funeral selfie” at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The photo quickly went viral, and critics bashed President Obama for his apparent flippant behavior at what was supposed to be a solemn occasion.

However, in a blog for AFP, Roberto Schmidt claims that the controversy surrounding the “Obama selfie” is overblown. The photographer notes that the picture was taken after Obama had delivered a moving eulogy for Mandela, and that the atmosphere at the memorial service was more celebratory than solemn.

“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,” Schmidt wrote in the blog. “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.”

Schmidt also rejected the rumors that First Lady Michelle Obama was angry with Thorning-Schmidt for taking the selfie with her husband. A series of photos that captured the first lady’s facial expressions seemed to suggest that she was upset throughout the service. In fact, a viral Internet rumor posited that she had made the president switch seats because she was angry with Thorning-Schmidt's flirtations.

“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,” Roberto Schmidt said. “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," Schmidt continued. "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."

Finally, Schmidt expressed exasperation at the public’s interest in such fleeting occurrences. “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.”