Photo Elicitation: Trees and the City

This essay aims to discuss, through a photo elicitation, the four different narratives of trees, as stipulated by Joanna Dean, that one encounters in the city. It provides a personal story for each of the four narratives, accompanied by respective photographs, as well as three other interviews with a peer, parent and grandparent on each narrative given. It also discusses the definition and importance of conducting a photo elicitation interview.

A photo elicitation interview is one in which people are interviewed on what they have to say about specific photos. The value thereof is that photos encourage interviewees to talk more comfortably, openly and to relate better. Photo elicitation helps to stimulate memories and emotions in the interviewee and therefore generate better data (Tinkler 2013:174).

Narrative of service: A little lemon tree provides lemons.

Joanna Dean describes four different narrative of trees in the city. The first narrative is that of service. Trees that provide services to human needs (Dean 2015:162). Growing up, we had a large lemon tree at the very end of our garden. Going out to pick the lemons for use in the kitchen became a family ritual. A couple of years ago though, white ants ate through the tree and it sadly died. But, with its death came another life; a small new lemon tree sprouted up next to where the old one stood. It still stands today and provides us with lemons just as the old one did.

Narrative of power: Palm trees as a symbol of wealth.

The second narrative is one of power. In this instance, a symbol of wealth (Dean 2015:163). Palm trees, I find are almost always seen as a symbol of wealth. When driving along the coast, one knows how to differentiate between the wealthy and the poor. Whenever I see a house with lots of palm trees in the garden, I immediately think of the residents as wealthier than the rest.

Narrative of heritage: The lighting prone oak tree.

The narrative of heritage is one where trees are associated with particular local and or historical events, myths or legends (Dean 2015:164). In the town I grew up in, there is a specific oak tree that has stood there for many decades and is synonymous with being struck by lightning. Whenever there is a thunderstorm, the tree is struck at least once, yet never dies. Two people have died in the last 4 years from being struck while standing under the tree.

Counter narrative: The farm on which the unruly tree stood before being cut down.

The counter narrative, is the unruly tree, one that causes trouble (Dean 2015:166). On the road that leads to Durban from the town I grew up in, there was an iconic pine tree that had grown very skew. It was almost parallel to the ground. The farmer who owned the land on which the tree stood trimmed it constantly to try and let it grow straight but it kept on growing skew. Eventually a large storm broke the top of the tree off and it fell into the adjacent road, blocking it. The farmer then cut it down completely.

In the interview I conducted with a peer, she told me her own stories based on the four narratives. In the narrative of service she thought back to a recent trip to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and how she had been very hot and tired after a long day in the sun. She came across a large tree that provided shade and shelter from the heat and she was very pleased.

For her narrative of power, my peer discussed how at her old high school there was a long road of jacaranda trees leading to the entrance and this always made her think of the wealth of the area as the school was private and in a very rich area.

The tree my peer associated with the narrative of heritage was the wood cycad. She always remembers the story she learnt in school of how a cluster of cycads was discovered in Durban and then split up and distributed to different botanical gardens around South Africa. She also mentioned how the cycads are very rare and must be protected because many thieves try to steal them to sell on the black market.

My peer stated in the interview that the first plant that comes to mind for the counter narrative is the ivy that grows all over her house and garden. With much frustration, she explained how it takes over the entire garden wall and even when it’s cut down it keeps growing and is a lot of effort to keep under control.

When speaking to a parent, I asked my father for his interpretation of the four narratives as he grew up in Durban and often speaks of the environment in the area and the role it played in his childhood. For the narrative of service my father spoke, with smile, of how he and his best friend used to climb over the garden wall into the neighbour’s yard when they were young as there as a devil chilli tree in that garden. They used to then have competitions with each other to see who could eat the most chillies before ‘chickening out’. In this way, the tree not only provided food but also entertainment for the two young boys.

For his narrative of power my father mentioned how in primary school, there were often pots of topiary trees around the school grounds. He said it was a perfect depiction of how he felt during school. He wanted to do what he liked, and grow up the way he wanted to. Much like the natural tree just grows whichever way it pleases. But the school kept ‘trimming’ him and teaching him the ways in which he must conform to society, just like when the trees where trimmed into perfect spheres.

My father described his narrative of heritage tree as the clump of trees that grew around the public swimming pool in the area he grew up in. Every evening thousands of birds would fly back to these massive old trees and nest there. Local folklore maintained that if these trees where ever cut down, no bird would return to the area ever again and so, the trees were protected and still stand around that pool today.

The unruly tree for my father is definitely the bamboo that grows outside his workshop. He initially decided to plant the bamboo for its sustainability as he wanted to use the plant for wood. However, it grew so fast and so much that now he has no control over it and has given up trying to keep it short and trim.

I decided to speak to my grandmother to hear if she had any narratives of her own experiences with trees. She spoke of stories both her and my grandfather had with trees throughout their many years together. When my grandmother was very young, she had a big treehouse in one of the trees in her garden. This was a tree of service, it housed something that was extremely special to her. My grandmother said she used to play in the treehouse so much that her father had to keep fixing it to keep it going. The tree and the little house in it, provided entertainment and many hours of fun for my grandmother, but eventually, the tree in which the treehouse was housed, fell down.

The second narrative, the tree of power, took place on the farm my grandfather owned many years ago. According to a tradition, my grandfather would plant a tree for every child him and my grandmother had, because one tree, when fully grown, would apparently provide the money to send each child to school and university. So, my grandfather planted a cluster of trees for my mother, uncle and aunt’s education and when one drove past the farm, this displayed the wealth of my grandfather and symbolised the family’s prosperity.

The tree in the narrative of heritage was also on the farm my grandfather owned. At one stage, he wanted to clear an area of land. However, the Shembe people in the area used one of the trees on the land as their place of worship. So my grandfather decided not to clear the area and declared in the deed of the land that the tree never be cut down.

For the final narrative of the unruly tree, my grandmother spoke of a Tipuana tipu tree that grew in the garden of her previous house. This tree, big and beautiful as it was, had the worst pollen problem. Every summer season when it flowered it would spread yellow, sticky, fluff-like pollen all over the garden. This then always fell into the pool and made it turn a sickly green which was a nightmare for my grandmother to try and clean.

To conclude, trees do indeed play a very important role in how we live amongst them and the memories they create, both positive and negative. Through the above photo elicitation, it has been proven that photos can create a much more valuable opportunity for dialogue and clearer reminiscence on difficult topics that without visual aid, may not have had successful responses.




Dean, J. 2015. The unruly tree: stories from the archives, in Urban forests, trees, and greenspace: a political ecology perspective, edited by LA Sandberg, A Bardekjian & S Butt. New York: Routledge:162-175.

Tinkler, P. 2013. Using photographs in social and historical research. London: SAGE.

(All photographs taken by author)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s