No, Obama Didn't Take a Selfie, Learn the English Language

The internet, having nothing else to do, is very excited about President Obama having taken a selfie at the Nelson Mandela memorial service today. But he did not take a selfie.

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The Internet, having nothing else to do, is very excited about President Obama having taken a selfie at the Nelson Mandela memorial service today. But he did not take a selfie. It is well past time we clarified what constitutes an actual selfie — and, while we're at it, what constitutes a "photobomb" and a "creepshot."


What Urbandictionary says:

A picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, Myspace or any other sort of social networking website. You can usually see the person's arm holding out the camera in which case you can clearly tell that this person does not have any friends to take pictures of them so they resort to Myspace to find internet friends and post pictures of themselves, taken by themselves.

What we say:

A selfie is a picture that includes the person taking the picture. Simple enough, or so it seems. But the question at hand is whether or not the photo that results from the image at right is 1) a selfie by Obama or 2) a selfie of Obama.

It's clear that it's a selfie of Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the woman between Obama and British prime minister David Cameron. It appears to be her phone; Obama uses a BlackBerry and the phone in the picture appears to be some sort of Android device. She's also the one in control of the picture-taking. (A Facebook commenter suggests that Obama is "simply steadying the cameraphone.") But is it a selfie of Obama? (Or Cameron?) Where is the line between "selfie" and "photo of someone" drawn?

The Wire's Connor Simpson suggested that the fact that all of the leaders pictured agreed to take the picture together makes it, somewhat oxymoronically, a group selfie — but that suggests that both proximity and consent are required. Think of it this way. If I stand 10 feet in front of you, taking a selfie, and you're in the background waving — is that a selfie of you? What if you don't wave? That is not a selfie of you; that is a photograph of you.

If a regular person takes a selfie with a famous or powerful person, interpretations vary. When Beyonce popped into a fan's photo, no one claimed it was a selfie of Beyonce. (In fact, some people claimed it was a photobomb, which is just stupid; see below.) But when the Pope appeared in a selfie, it became the "first Papal selfie."

The uncertainty is easily resolved with our definition, if we add one point: a selfie is "of" no one except the person who takes the selfie. Beyonce and the Pope appeared in the selfies of others; it is a photograph of them. The photo taken by the three world leaders is itself a selfie — but Obama did not take it and, therefore, it is not his selfie. It is a selfie in which he appears, alongside the person for whom it is a selfie, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

The Wire's Elle Reeve offers a term for a group shot like the Obama/Cameron/Thorning one: a "selvie," derived from "ourselves."


What Urbandictionary says:

to drop in a photo hop in a picture right before it is taken.

What we say:

A photobomb is a photo that includes someone (or something) the photo taker didn't intend to capture.

There is a gray area here around intentionality. We generally refer to those pictures in which a small animal suddenly pops in front of the camera lens as photobombs, though clearly the animal isn't intending to disrupt the picture. When a human unintentionally appears in the background of a photo, it does not usually count as a photobomb. When Bill Clinton stuck his head out for a peek at Kelly Clarkson during the inaugural in January, ABC News declared it a photobomb. It was not. Context matters; had it been anyone besides Clinton, it would have been a photo ruined by some goob sticking his head into the aisle.

Being in a photo that is being taken of someone else is not a photobomb. In May, at The New Republic, Marin Cogan argued that reporters standing near elected officials who were being photographed were participants in a photobomb. What? No. What? Look, it is OK to accept that sometimes a photograph of someone is just a photograph of that person, intentional or not.


What Urbandictionary says:

Creepshots are similar to upskirts, but are usually of the butts of women in yoga pants, or shots of women who happen to be showing a great amount of cleavage.

What we say:
A creepshot is a photograph taken without another person's knowledge. The best example of this is the CreepHerrms Tumblr, a collection of photos of BuzzFeed's John Herrman. Each is taken without his knowledge; each was then posted online.

There is some question about when a picture ceases being a creepshot. If the person sees you taking the picture, is it still a creepshot? Here, intentionality matters. If you're trying to keep from being seen taking the picture and you do so successfully, it's a creepshot. If you're trying to take a picture of someone and they see you do so just as you take it, creepshot. If they laugh and pose for the picture, it is a failed creepshot.

There does exist the selfie creepshot, in which you pose for a picture of yourself as a means of surreptitiously taking a picture of someone else. This is for advanced users only. If there exists a photobombed selfie creepshot, we have yet to see it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.