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Vogue Brazil digitally removed limbs from actors to promote the Paralympics and completely missed the point

Paralympic athletes are inspiring. Celebrities edited to look like them are not.

Actors Cleo Pires and Paulo Vilhena’s images were altered to make them look like amputees
Instragram/ Voguebrasil

The Brazilian edition of Vogue magazine published an image from a photo shoot this week that designed to promote the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, which begin this week.

Here’s where things got weird: Instead of shooting Paralympic athletes, the publication chose to use actors whose images were edited to make it appear as if they had disabilities.

That’s right. Two celebrity ambassadors for the Brazilian Paralympic Committee were edited to look like amputees. Cleo Pires lost an arm, and Paulo Vilhena was given a prosthetic leg.

The choice and resulting images of Pires and Vilhena standing side by side with a caption that reads, in part, "We are all Paralympians" seems in really bad taste. After all, a disability is not something you can put on and take off for fun, for shock value, or for publicity. Even if it’s for a good cause, making light of a disability for the sake of attracting eyeballs seems disrespectful to those who can’t shed their challenges when the campaign is over.

Plus, critics have pointed out that the magazine missed a chance to highlight Paralympians, or even models with the kinds of physical disabilities athletes competing in the Paralympic Games might have.

"[It’s] hard to understand why Vogue Brazil felt the need to use models who aren’t disabled in a Paralympic photoshoot," Richard Lane, who works for the British disabilities charity Scope, told the Huffington Post UK. "It’s so rare to see positive and powerful representations of disabled people in the media."

Vogue Brazil’s decision about who to focus on became even more apparent when Instagram posts revealed that two actual Paralympians — Renato Leite and Bruna Alexandre — were on the set but not included in the images Vogue shared.

It’s unclear whether Vogue Brazil has plans to share or publish images that include the athletes. The campaign has been widely criticized on Twitter for using only the digitally altered actors in its initial rollout, and BBC spoke to Brazilian models and disability activists who expressed their disappointment.

Various publications have reported that Pires, one of the actors featured, defended herself against criticism of the photos in an Instagram video, saying, "We lent our image to generate visibility. And that’s what we’re doing. My God."

That focus on drawing attention to the games echoes what Vogue Brazil said in a release about the campaign: "‘We’re all Paralympians’ is to bring visibility to the event and to help sell tickets. Fewer than 15 per cent of Paralympic tickets have been sold."

The Telegraph reported that the PR agency Africa created the publicity campaign and that Clayton Carneiro, Vogue Brazil’s art director, said it was Pires’s brainchild.

As Mic’s Rachel Lubitz pointed out, to be fair, the Paralympic athletes who were on set didn’t seem to have any problem with the magazine’s choices:

Alexandre wrote on Instagram,

Personally, I have been clear that I am so proud to be part of this campaign that the magazine #Vogue began to publish the first pictures of this beautiful work. Our Ambassadors Paralympics Cleo Pires and Paulo Vilhena, helped to intensify and spread the campaign aiming to increase visibility to the Paralympic Movement and gathering the Brazilian fans to be present at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016.

Still, the move seems misguided on a deeper level than its potential offensiveness to particular athletes. After all, if interest in the Paralympic Games is low because of the perception that the games are less exciting, less glamorous, and less worth watching than the games’ able-bodied counterpart that just wrapped up, it would seem that Vogue Brazil’s decision to replace the athletes with actors doesn’t necessarily show solidarity but actually reinforces that thinking. The belief underlying the campaign — that actual competitors’ images and achievements aren’t enough on their own to excite potential audiences — is exactly the problem.