What was First Lady Michelle Obama thinking while President Obama joined in a selfie with other world leaders during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela?
Only she knows.
Her look — eyes focused on something off in the distance, mouth closed — has been described as “stern” and “apparently disapproving” in the media.
But the AFP photographer who snapped the photo of the president, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt taking a light-hearted self-portrait says a moment earlier the first lady had also been laughing with those around her.
Roberto Schmidt, the photographer behind the lens, says he was surprised that the photo became an Internet sensation.
“I later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture,” Schmidt, who was 150 meters from the Obamas during the memorial service, wrote on AFP’s blog. “But photos can lie. 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.”
Those chance photos of the selfie and the first lady’s reaction took over Internet streams. Liberal documentarian Michael Moore tweeted: “Michelle’s reaction priceless.” The UK’s Daily Mail posted that the playing around left “Michelle VERY unamused.”
Other photos were lined up to tell a story. All included the president laughing with those around him while the first lady looked stoic by comparison. It wasn’t so black-and-white, Schmidt said.
“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,” he wrote. “For me, the behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural.”
But his photos along with another AFP shot that shows Barack Obama laughing with Thorning-Schmidt were used this week to create a narrative of Michelle Obama giving the “stink eye” as her husband joked around at a memorial service.
A look at a broader swath of photos of the day show Michelle Obama looking generally subdued after a 17 hour flight.
Over at Salon.com, Roxane Gay argues the flash interpretations of the first lady’s facial expressions are fraught with stereotypes of black women. (Wonkette’s headline was: “Michelle Obama Pissed, Y’all”)
“On and on the punditry goes, ascribing very specific, historically racialized narratives to what Michelle Obama is thinking and feeling in one candid moment,” Gay wrote, noting that some of the online commentary was clearly tongue-in-cheek.
The White House has had no comment on the Internet chatter.
But the White House Photographer did release a wider range of images from the Obamas’ trip to South Africa. In several of them, the first lady is smiling.