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Vanaski: Obama not alone in our love of selfies — even at funerals

AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a picture with Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt next to U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

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By Nafari Vanaski
Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013

Looking recently at some old family photos of a Disney World vacation, I saw shots of my brother and me posing shyly with Mickey Mouse, the two of us on a carousel and others with the whole family just hanging out.

They seemed weird. Like they were missing something.

Then I realized what it was: The person taking the photo was not in the shot, holding the camera at arm's length.

What can I say? That was the 1980s for you.

Today you can see a giant rubber duck floating near The Point, and the coolest thing about the photo is that your face is in the picture, too.

Even the president of the United States isn't immune to the mysterious lure of the selfie. At a memorial service for Nelson Mandela this week, Obama was photographed participating in a selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Danish counterpart, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

The photos show Obama and Schmidt working together to steady a smartphone as the president's wife sat beside him, looking … somewhat irritated. (Those cellphones are heavy, am I right?)

Later photos show that she eventually traded seats with the president, which reminds me of grade school, when my teacher would separate the troublemakers by having one of them sit beside her. Not that I had any personal experience with that.

It's worth noting that Roberto Schmidt, the Agence-France Press photographer who snapped the image, said that the mood of the entire ceremony at that moment was celebratory, which is something you can't see in the photo. Schmidt said he believes the selfie was a show of high-level politicians just acting like average people.

So this tells us Obama is not unlike most of the rest of the population, especially those who are too young to vote.

Now do me a favor: Use your favorite search engine and do an image search for “funeral selfies.” Go ahead. I'll wait. Did you see those kids with mock frowny-faces? Or the ones with girls making pouty lips to the camera? How about that guy who is holding up the peace sign with his dead relative laid out in the background? Remember when people used to just bring home the program or a prayer card from a person's funeral?

What does it say about us when we go to a memorial service for one of the finest human beings ever and people — including the president and leaders of two other nations — mark the moment by taking self-portraits? Why do we have to insert ourselves into every event?

I think it's because we're incredibly self-absorbed. I asked Matthew Donahue, lecturer in the pop culture department at Bowling Green State University. He is a bit more charitable and understanding.

“It speaks to the 21st-century, technological-dominated society we live in,” he explained. “It's another way for people to document their lives.” Donahue said it is the wide public access to smartphones that make selfies so much more prevalent.

Photographs have been used to record historic events for a long time, I argued, so how is it not self-absorbed to take a picture of yourself by yourself?

“But it's being uploaded to the Internet so potential millions of people can see it,” Donahue replied, arguing that it is actually a form of sharing yourself.

Or it could mean that we love ourselves.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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