Photographer documents mother's journey with MS

Jamie Woytiuk was a child who always had a camera and her parents gave her a more professional one after university. When her mother was diagnosed with MS, Woytiuk used photography to help process her grief.

Jamie Woytiuk was the child who always had a camera on-hand, her mom was one of her biggest fans

Jamie Woytiuk said she hopes her two young boys will see their grandmother as she does and learn to connect with people who are in similar situations. (Submitted by Jamie Woytiuk)

When Jamie Woytiuk's mother was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in the 1990s, Woytiuk didn't realize what that meant for the future. Her mom, Joanne, was still mobile and could live a normal life. 

Then one of her mother's feet started dragging when she walked. At the five-year mark, her health went down quickly. 

"It basically went from her being able to be mobile to basically being bedridden with no movement of her body parts and choking on her own saliva," said Woytiuk.

When she's taking pictures, Jamie Woytiuk says she looks for something that grips her — a light in her eye, a look of helplessness or a spark of joy. “For example, she’s looking straight into the camera with a mask on her face and I feel like she’s looking directly at me.” (Submitted by Jamie Woytiuk)

She said she repressed her grief until she couldn't anymore. Her mother's illness, among other things, made Woytiuk reflect. 

"It just really made me dig deep in my life and who I am and what I want. And what's important in life," Woytiuk said. "She is important to me." 

You want to take this disease away and you want to make things better and I can't.- Jamie Woytiuk

Woytiuk decided seven years ago to start photographing her mother's life with multiple sclerosis. She said her parents had a strong artistic influence on her life. 

"[Photographing] was a way for me to process the grief and also connect with my mom in a different way," she said.

Woytiuk said their roles have changed — she is now a caregiver to her mom. 

Currently Joanne has no movement of her body and lives in a rehabilitation centre. She has half a room with a window lined with plants. Photos of her family and grandchildren cover the walls. 

“I don’t want her to get lost in [the editing],” Jamie Woytiuk said about how she edits carefully. “When someone’s looking at how I’m looking at her right now, I see the helplessness in her face at this moment.” (Submitted by Jamie Woytiuk)

Woytiuk said she asked her mom for permission and will only continue as long as she has it. 

"[My mom] is opening up her life and that vulnerability," she said. "It's not pretty. It's very ugly and it's sad and she cries a lot. And she's not the woman that she used to be." 

Woytiuk said she also wanted to take photographs because she was worried her mother would become isolated and invisible when she was hospitalized. 

"I just really wanted people to see her like I see her," she said. "She's still here. She exists. She's a human, she has feelings and she's important." 

Jamie Woytiuk said when her mother was first diagnosed, her first thoughts were about Jaime and her brother. “So how it was going to affect us rather than how it would affect her and she put on that front for us, so maybe that’s why I didn’t have that like ‘it was a big deal.’” (Submitted by Jamie Woytiuk)

While photographing is important to her, Woytiuk said she doesn't always take pictures. 

"There's a time to pick up that camera and to shoot that woman but there's also a time to hold my mom," she said. 

Woytiuk said photographing a loved one is sometimes challenging, and some days can be tough. 

"A day like today, for example," she said. "Where her lungs are sounding really yucky... she's crying more than usual even and uncomfortable." 
Jamie (left) and her Mom Joanne (right). Jamie Woytiuk said she was a creative child who came from artistic parents. Her mother would paint and her father was a videographer. “I was that child that had a camera and took photos that were crappy but I enjoyed just being creative.” (Submitted by Jamie Woytiuk)

"I look at her and I just feel horrible because you want to take this disease away and you want to make things better and I can't." 

Woytiuk said it can be therapeutic to photograph because she's embracing her emotions rather than repressing them or pushing them away. 

Expanding the project

In the future, Woytiuk said she hopes to expand beyond the project with her mother and photograph the lives of other people with progressive multiple sclerosis. She said the illness is different for everyone. 

"I just want to keep photographing people and telling their stories," she said. "There's just so many stories that need to be heard."

Jamie Woytiuk was the child who always had a camera on-hand and her mom was one of her biggest fans. Now she's taking photos of her mother's battle with Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. 6:45

With files from CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition