This week's media coverage of Nelson Mandela's memorial service had little to do with the service itself. There was the unexpected handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro; the fake sign language interpreter who says he saw angels in the stadium; and of course, "selfie-gate." Brooke speaks with Roberto Schmidt, the AFP photographer who snapped the now infamous photos, about how the media have overblown the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week's memorial service for Nelson Mandela was a fount of headline- grabbing photo ops. First, there was the handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro. Here's CNN's live coverage of that.
[CLIP]: CHRIS CUOMO: Before I came on, we were walking around and talking to security officials.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Castro! He's shaking hands with Raul Castro!
CHRIS CUOMO: Right, as Christiane points out, President Obama just shook hands with Raul Castro from Cuba.
[SINGING IN BACKGROUND][END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And all the subsequent Kremlinological commentary, culminating in Senator John McCain's penetrating historical analogy.
JOHN McCAIN: Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up on the podium, there was the sign language interpreter who later explained that he was hallucinating angels and had past episodes that resulted in violence, flailing his arms about, signifying nothing.
RON ALLEN/NBC NEWS: He was seen behind President Obama and a number of other speakers, making hand gestures. And critics have said that he was an imposter, that none of this made any sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And finally, of course, there was Selfie-gate, the funeral selfie seen around the world, featuring the smiling trio of Obama, alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
CORRESPONDENT: Is this modern-day diplomacy, or is it just dis, disrespectful at a memorial service?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roberto Schmidt, the AFP photographer, took the picture of the selfie being snapped. Tell me about the events leading up to that moment of that picture, the context.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: Well, part of my assignment was to look at the heads of state who had gathered for the ceremony. Barack Obama was talking to David Cameron and with the Danish Prime Minister, and that’s when she actually reached into her purse and brought out a cell phone and stretched her arms and did a selfie with them. I actually liked the fact that I was seeing this, seeing dignitaries on a human side, which we rarely get to see, actually. You know, the access that we have to dignitaries is so controlled that I thought this was actually refreshing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did this strike you as shamefully disrespectful?
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: Not really. I think this whole episode has been blown out of proportion. It was a very festive atmosphere, which is actually very interesting and pretty, actually, in a way. It’s the way South Africans celebrate the life and the memory of Nelson Mandela. And they were dancing and singing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The ceremony had already gone on for two hours. It was going on for two hours more. It was just one of what, some 500 pictures you took of the event?
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: Yeah, that’s what’s a little bit sad about it. We put out close to 500 images that day. And some of the images are very, very interesting, nice, strong images, showing this celebration for Nelson Mandela. And, unfortunately, you know, the picture that got more front pages in dailies and websites around the world was the selfie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aside from some people’s moral indignation, seeing this photo, there was also a little mini-drama involving a floating image on social media and even some news outlets that showed a series of pictures of Obama sitting in between the smiling blonde Danish Prime Minister and a rather glum sullen-looking Michelle Obama. Were we seeing a domestic spat?
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: I think that’s an interpretation that people are making, but just one single image can be a little deceiving sometimes. At the moment that the picture was taken, sure, she was serious and she wasn’t partaking in the selfie. She was just looking forward. But, you know, minutes before she was meeting and greeting people, talking candidly with others. Look, whatever interpretation you want to make, you should ask her. I cannot say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a report from Media Matters this week that said a majority of Mandela's memorial coverage on the cable news channels focused on the Castro handshake and on the selfie, rather than on the memorial itself or Mandela's legacy. Did you ever imagine when you snapped that photo that it would become such a big deal?
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: No, never – never, never, never. I knew I had a, an interesting moment, just because we usually don’t see heads of state in a very human light. Everything is very staged. And I knew it was a picture worth putting on the wire and it would get some play. But I never thought it would grow into this, into this buzz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was your reaction to the media spectacle around this seemingly innocuous snapshot?
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: I really think it’s just sad. I mean, it’s like what does that say about our society. Is that – are those the things that we focus on? Sometimes we just get carried away by, by noise that people make, and it just produces more and more noise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess we should be glad that there are so many of these little dustups that they fade out of memory almost as quickly as they make their splash.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: Absolutely. Well, look at – this is a good example. You know, the selfie, you know, made a big splash but now today the big talk is about the, the translator for, for the sign language. What are we gonna talk about tomorrow?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roberto, thank you very much.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: You're most welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roberto Schmidt is a photographer for Agence France-Presse, based in India.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: Do you know when this is going air live or how I can get like a copy of it, or maybe a link for it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure. This will be posted on Friday night, Eastern Standard Time.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: Great. It’s just like one of these things. Really, I never really believe this is gonna happen –
- right, and so it’s – for me, it’s more than anything really, more than anything else, it’s like a curious anecdote in my career.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: And maybe someday I can, I can sit with my son and say, yeah, like check this out, man, wasn’t – wasn’t this the mess-up, you know?
Learn from this. Don’t be like this, Son, don’t be like this. [LAUGHS]