There’s been a great deal of discussion of two photographs that were taken during the memorial service for late South African president Nelson Mandela on Tuesday. The first is an image of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose resting facial expression is not particularly cheerful, appearing to disapprove of her husband’s conversation with Danish Prime Minister Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, which became the subject of much comment, even though another photograph in the sequence shows her smiling. As Roxanne Gay writes at Salon, “the Internet is speculating about Michelle Obama’s mind-set, her motivations and the state of her marriage because if a married black man, always on the prowl even if he is the commander in chief, is seen smiling next to an attractive white woman, well, that’s curtains for the marriage. The white she-devil strikes again!”
The second image is one of President Obama, Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt, and British Prime Minister David Cameron posing for a cell phone picture together. Both Obama and Thorning-Schmidt’s hands are touching the phone, though it’s not clear whose phone it is. That the President of the United States would engage in a behavior that’s publicly associated with teenage girls at a state event has provoked some tongue-clucking. But the discussion over the first picture explains perfectly why President Obama would pose for the second picture or take it for himself.
If you haven’t been the target of a professional photographer’s wedding (though really, how many of us haven’t been snapped looking awkward at a wedding?) or aren’t familiar with how many shots high-quality cameras can take in an extremely compressed short period of time, I can see how you might not be conversant with how easy it is to capture a transitional facial image that expresses absolutely nothing about what a person is actually thinking. But given how easy it is to take such pictures, and how easy it is to effectively turn them into fan fiction with no relation to the actual facts or feelings of the moment, who can blame the targets of such speculation for wanting to take selfies?
The practice of taking pictures of yourself has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks, particularly in feminist circles. At Slate, Rachel Simmons suggested they were shots of self-affirmation. At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan countered with a broadside declaring that “the typical selfie is not taken by women who have just completed Iron Man Triathlons or finally finished reading Infinite Jest…selfies don’t typically contain job offer letters, successful grant applications, their face in front of a gorgeously rendered still life the woman drew by hand. They’re literally just pictures of a woman’s face not talking.”
But whether you think taking a picture of yourself and circulating it for public consumption is empowering or a search for “Likes,” a selfie is, at its core, a picture of yourself that you have control over. In a selfie, you control the framing, the angle, the tint and focus if you edit the image after taking it. And you control your expression. Wanting an image that reflects yourself back out to the world as you want to be seen is an entirely rational desire, no matter your gender, in a moment when it’s easier than ever for images of even non-famous people to be disseminated without context and without their consent.
We don’t know for sure that the selfie in question is actually President Obama’s — maybe the Danish Prime Minister is excited about her seating, and wanted to commemorate the moment for herself. (Update: AFP has clarified that she did, in fact, initiate the photo on her phone.) But if the phone on which the picture is being taken is President Obama’s, there are any number of reasons he may have had for taking it. Maybe President Obama wanted a picture that he controlled from his appearance at the memorial service for the man who inspired him to his first political actions. Maybe he wanted to preserve private evidence of his ascension to pride of place among the leaders who gathered to remember Nelson Mandela. Maybe he was being polite to British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, or simply succuumbing to a giddy sense of wonder at the moment.
President Obama is, after all, the first president of the United States to carry a Blackberry, an arrangement that required negotiations with the Secret Service before his inauguration. The White House may be far removed from the rhythms of ordinary Americans’ lives, but that doesn’t mean that President Obama is completely unaware of or immune to digital trends. And the uproar over his wife’s facial expression explains why President Obama might have more reason than most of us to want to some pictures of himself and his family where he gets to frame the shot and trigger the lens.