I go to sleep and wake up to this headline, "President Obama Takes Selfie at Nelson Mandela Funeral". Say what now?? So, of course, I went to The Oracle - Huff Post - and there was the article and photographic proof that this was, in fact, true, that my President, my POTUS, had obviously bumped his head getting off of Air Force One. I mean, what other explanation could there be??
Now, there are numerous issues here, including the rules for appropriate world leader behavior, but there are also the further issues of just what is acceptable behavior at funerals and does photography fall into the category of acceptable. Technically speaking, POTUS was attending a memorial service for President Mandela, being held in a soccer stadium with thousands of people in attendance. This sprawling arena is not sacred, sanctified space. For instance, when Pope Benedict visited Washington, DC and held Mass at the Washington Nationals baseball field, social media was flooded with images snapped by those in attendance at this historic event. My photography colleagues who work in print journalism are often tasked with covering funerals and memorial services for public figures and in the aftermath of events that have national import and impact, such as the memorial and funeral services for the victims of Newtown. But as a photographer, while I am often hired to photograph church services and sacred events, such as weddings and christenings, when I attend funerals my camera stays home.
Funeral photography has become a hot topic these days. It seems every funeral guest, these days, is armed with a camera phone and, since funerals have become de facto family reunions where relatives and old family friends reconnect after years or, perhaps, decades, without seeing each other, those camera phones invariably find their way into the hands of these mourners. This freelance funeral photography is jarring. The first time I saw it was in a text message from my late father. He and Mom had attended the funeral of an old family friend and the text message from Dad included a photo...of the casket...the open casket. After that, I asked Dad not to include photographs from any more gatherings such as these. At a recent family funeral attended by hundreds of my family members, I saw lots of photos being snapped at the repast. It felt odd to me, but since all funerals take on this "Circle of Life" kind of quality, I tried not to judge it, though I decided not to participate in it.
Which brings me to today in South Africa, and the "selfie" that shouldn't have happened. Unlike my iPhone-wielding relatives, POTUS has an entire global press corps and his own team of White House photographers there to capture him in the midst of historical moments. The rest of us take selfies in order to tell the world, or our little patch of the world, "look at me! I'm here!!" But you're the President - you don't need that, and especially not at an occasion such as this. You want to know what's appropriate? Look at your wife, the First Lady. FLOTUS is the perfect picture of the reserve and respect that one should show when honoring the dead. But for now, I'll step off of my soapbox and get working on that inevitable POTUS selfie meme, you know, POTUS snapping a selfie at the site of the Hindenburg crash, or POTUS snapping a selfie with the trapped Chilean miners.