HIV-positive photographer pushes through PTSD and pain of losing daughter

In 1994, everything was going picture perfect for Denise Wozniak. Then her six-month-old daughter Katie was diagnosed with AIDS.

‘I still have PTSD, I still have nightmares but it has lifted my depression,’ says photographer

Denise Wozniak holding her daughter Katie three weeks before her death. (Submitted by Denise Wozniak)

In 1994, everything was going picture perfect for Denise Wozniak.

Then her six-month-old daughter Katie was diagnosed with AIDS.

"It was an incredible shock," Wozniak. "We were then tested and it was found out that I had HIV." 

Her husband, to whom she had been married four years at that point, was not infected with the virus.

Wozniak had apparently contracted the virus from a boyfriend before she was married.

"My daughter was given two years to live and she actually died three months later after the diagnosis,"  Wozniak told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

Wozniak herself was given five years to live — a long time in those days, she said.

Medical advances in the late 1990s helped her get her symptoms under control.

Wozniak was first introduced to photography when a friend took her out to get a picture of a snowy owl on a cold winter day in Alberta. (Denise Wozniak)

Overcoming PTSD

But that wasn't the end of Wozniak's struggles. She was later diagnosed with chronic post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Wozniak now advocates for using creativity to overcome traumatic events and to cope with pain.

A friend introduced her to photography when they set out to get a picture of a snowy owl on a cold January day in Alberta. After that, Wozniak says she "started photographing anything."

She recalled one instance of trying to snap a shot of a flitting hummingbird — even going so far as dressing like a flower to attract its attention, a tactic that didn't work, she said laughing.

"I just was bewitched by that hummingbird, I must have taken over 200 pictures of that hummingbird," she said.

She gave a TEDx talk in White Rock this week about her experience using photography to pull herself out of a cycle of depression.

Wozniak estimates she took over 200 shots of the hummingbird before she got the one she wanted. (Denise Wozniak)

'Lifted my depression'

Wozniak's experience was supported by research conducted at Stanford University with veterans using photography to overcome their PTSD.

She phoned the researchers and found out that photographs, and other creative projects, are both an outlet of emotions and a way to explain the traumatic experience to others.

"I still have PTSD, I still have nightmares but it has lifted my depression," Wozniak said. "When I don't do — and I haven't done photography for a few days now — I can feel a darkness coming over me again."

Wozniak's TEDx talk was part of a series on how creativity can be used to overcome traumatic events.

In 1994, everything was going picture perfect for Denise Wozniak. Then her six-month-old daughter Katie was diagnosed with AIDS. 6:41

With files from The Early Edition.