Photo Elicitation: Tree Narratives

The following blog post will focus on the four narratives of trees outlined by Joanna Dean. According to Dean the four narratives are; the narrative of service, narrative of power, narrative of heritage and lastly the counter narrative of the unruly tree. The blog post will provide information from photo elicitation interviews based on the four narrative categories.

A photo elicitation is to make use of photographs to interview people. Photographs encourage people to talk more about the subject, as they focus more on the photograph rather than the interview context and the interviewer. Researchers believed that photos would encourage sharpen recall and trigger detailed and thorough responses. Photographs can stimulate people to talk about their experiences, memories and may offer information that the interviewed may have forgotten of would not think to mention (Tinkler 2013).

The first narrative is how trees selflessly provide multiple services to humans and animals; they provide shade and environmental benefits. Trees serves as homes for animals and also cleans the air of carbonic acid gas. Humans breathe in pure air because trees take in the carbonic acid gas, distribute the carbon to the building of their substance and return the oxygen to the atmosphere (Dean 2015). As a child, we had a Mulberry tree in our garden and we always ate of the delicious mulberries the tree provided, but the service this tree provided was to our silkworms. Silkworms can only survive on mulberry leaves as other vegetation will kill them.


White Mulberry leaves and fruit, 2013. Photograph by Eve Delange.

My brother recently discovered, after he visited the Pretoria Zoo, that Koala bears are restricted to eat mainly eucalyptus leaves as they struggle with indigestion when consuming other leaves.


Koala in Eucalyptus tree, [sa]. Photograph by Mark Higgins.

My grandparents lives in a small grove and always tells me of all the types of small animals they find in their garden from meerkats to bush babies. The trees in their garden serves as shelter for multiple animals.


Grandparents house, 2016. Photograph by author.

According to a student of natural medicine, the acacia tree has numerous medicinal purposes treating several medicinal conditions and thus shows how trees provide services to humans. Tanzania - Lion in acacia tree

Acacia tree, 2010. Photograph by James Goodchild.

The narrative of how trees can be symbols of power and the control humans have over nature. Long lines of identical trees, alike in age and type, represents power, wealth, class and status. To plant trees in groupings and to remove them as we please shows human control over nature. This is seen at the university of Pretoria, where a row of identical trees can be seen.

University of Pretoria, 2016. Photograph by author.

My grandfather used to travel a lot for work and saw wonderful places while he was there. In California, there is an enormous Redwood tree which shows power in itself, but also shows how people have control over nature, as they manipulated the tree so that cars can drive through it.

Drive-Thru-Tree-Park-CaliforniaRedwood tree at Drive-thru tree park. 2013. Photograph by Michael Schwarzer.

He also told me about how palm trees are status symbols in Italy as they are very expensive and only the wealthy citizens can afford them.


Palm tree, Pulgia Italy. 2015. Photograph by Shiny Thoughts.

My grandfather told me that in ancient egypt they believed that the acacia tree was a sacred tree but he did not know the reasons why. This interested me, so I went to read up on the reasons; according to Ben Christie, the acacia was known as the tree of life because they ancient Egyptians believed that their first gods were born from an acacia (Christie 2014).


Wall paintings of Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians Had Their Own Version Of Ayahuasca They Called “The Tree Of Life” article by Ben Christie, 2014.

According to my brother the Jacaranda tree can also show the control people have over nature as only two Jacaranda trees were imported into Pretoria in the 1800’s and now the city streets are lined with Jacaranda trees.

The narrative of heritage; trees can be associated with human history ,a person, place or event. It can be a notable tree because of its size, colour, beauty or age (Dean 2015). Every interviewed person’s first thought was the Jacaranda tree when it came to the narrative of heritage. My grandmother told me that there were numerous arguments in Pretoria about whether the Jacaranda trees should be removed, as it is an invasive species and prevents other plants from growing around them; it was declared that no more Jacaranda trees can be imported or planted. She told me that the tree can also be a nuisance as the sticky flowers fall everywhere and can be chaotic to clean.

Even though the Jacaranda tree is of South American origin, this tree has become a prominent landmark in Pretoria and so serves as a heritage tree. After thousands of Jacaranda trees lined the streets of Pretoria; Pretoria became known as the Jacaranda city (Henderson 1990). This shows the Jacaranda as a heritage tree as it is associated with a place, and even though the tree is despised by many, its beauty and colour makes it a remarkable tree.


Jacaranda trees, 2015. Photograph by Paul Saad.

The above narratives subordinate trees to human needs; we need to consider the unruly tree in the urban landscape. The trees that cause trouble, whether they grow too big, too fast or in the wrong way (Dean 2015).  The images below shows an unruly palm tree as the tree can be dangerous. This palm tree is infested with termites and because of the damage it can collapse on the houses next to it.

Palm tree, 2016. Photograph by author.

According to Sean Hunter, termites are not only a serious threat to the tree they infest but can also cause extreme damage to any house near the tree, as the building can also become infested. Unfortunately, it is common for termites to infest one’s home for years before they are detected (Hunter 2015).

My grandmother told me that when she was younger there was a tree in their neighbours yard which destroyed the foundation of his home. According to Bonnie Grant tree roots can crack cement and concrete and can even cause damages to building foundations if the tree is planted too close to a structure. Invasive tree roots seeks nutrients and water; plumbing and sewer pipes draws these roots in for the growth (Grant 2016).


Tree roots destroying sidewalk, 2016. Photograph by Damian M.

A thorn tree at the university of Pretoria is growing askew and might be a danger to students that sit around it, but the tree trunk is braced with cables attached to stakes which shows human intervention and control over nature. This narrative can be seen as a narrative of power and a counter narrative of an unruly tree.



Thorn tree at the University of Pretoria, 2016. Photograph by author.

This blog post focussed on the four narratives of trees as Joanna Dean discusses. According to Dean the four narratives are; the narrative of service, narrative of power, narrative of heritage and lastly the counter narrative of the unruly tree. This blog post provided information from photo elicitation interviews based on the four narrative categories.


Christie, B. 2014. The Egyptians Had Their Own Version Of Ayahuasca They Called “The Tree Of Life”. [O].Available:
Accessed 07/05/2016.

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.

Delange, E & Delange, G. 2013. White Mulberry fruit tree. [O]. Available: Accessed 07/05/2016.

Goodchild, J. 2010. Tanzania- Lion in Acacia tree. [O]. Available:
Accessed 07/05/2016.

Grant,B. 2016.Tree Root Systems: Learn About Problem Tree Roots.[O]. Available: Accessed 08/05/2016.

Henderson, L. 1990. Jacaranda. Farming in South Africa. Pretoria: Department of Agricultural development: 191-192.

Higgins, M. [sa]. Mark Higgins’s Portfolio.[O]. Available:
Accessed 07/05/2016.

Hunter, S. 2015. The Essential Guide To Termites.[O]. Available:
Accessed 08/05/2016.

Saad, P. 2015. Jacaranda Tree HDR, Pretoria.[O]. Available:
Accessed 02/05/2016.

Shiny Thoughts, 2015. Colourful house palm tree polignano a mare puglia italy.[O].Available:
Accessed 07/05/2016.’

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


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