Photo-elicitation: A Look at the Narratives of Trees

Photo-interviewing, also known as ‘photo-elicitation’, is an increasingly popular method used in research in order to find out what people are thinking and feeling (Tinkler, 2013:73). Photo interviews are particularly useful as it is a good method for collecting data, but yet at the same time stimulates conversation. The use of photographs in interviews aids in the process of dialogue in the sense that it encourages interviewees to recall, reflect and converse (Tinkler, 2013:73).

The dialogue is therefore more fluid and open as the photos trigger conversation, as well as builds trust and respect between the interviewer and interviewee (Tinkler, 2013:174). It also acts as a distraction to the awkwardness that often arises from face-to-face interviews. As a result a form of “negotiated understanding” is established, which consequently empowers the participants (Tinkler, 2013:174).

However, photo interviews are not always ideal in all situations for various reasons such as the problem that not all photographs will illicit conversation form the participants (Tinkler, 2013:175). Regardless though, photo interviews provide insight into how people conceptualise the images whilst providing temporalities as well (Tinkler, 2013:184-185).

For the final blog a photo-elicitation on trees were conducted. Trees according to Joanna Dean in The Unruly Tree: Stories from the Archives, trees fulfil different roles that can be translated into three continual narratives. The narratives are according to Dean Humanist in nature and in relation to their usefulness to people (Dean, 2015:162). What follows is my own accounts of the three narratives, as well as a fourth narrative, that of the “unruly” tree. In addition, recollections of people I interviewed conclude the blog on Theme 5.


Trees in a public park in 32nd Avenue in Vilieria (taken by Elizabeth Forssman, 2016).

In this narrative specific services that can be provided by trees are of interest. Services such as providing shade and environmental benefits come to mind. For me the most important service that can be provided by a tree is that of shade (and shelter). I remember how my three best friends and I used to sit under our favourite tree in high school – a place of solace from the hot summers. The photo that I have included reminds me of the service of shade provided by trees. It was taken near my house and is a popular spot with young families who are looking for a cool and calm spot to hangout at on weekend afternoons.


Magnolia tree in my garden in Villieria (taken by Elizabeth Forssman, 2016).

The second narrative is that of power and refers to how humans tend to want to control nature for aesthetic purposes. The power narrative can also be extended further to symbolic concepts such as class and status. The photograph I decided to share here is of a dead Magnolia tree in my garden.  Although dead, the tree reminds me of beauty. Often it is said and believed that inner beauty is what is most important – “it’s what’s inside that counts”, because outer (superficial) beauty does not last. The Magnolia tree symbolises that concept to me. It is not an indigenous tree and even though it makes the most beautiful flowers in spring it was not able to withstand the current drought. An indigenous tree however would have lasted much longer and survived the drought and would have, in the long run, been able to “beautify” the garden more effectively.


Trees with autumn leaves in Rietondale Park (taken by Elizabeth Forssman, 2016).

The third narrative, heritage, can consist of for example trees that represent prominent community landmarks, or trees that are associated with historic places or people as well as traditions. My account of the third narrative is of trees that are part of the Rietondale Park in Pretoria. Rietondale Park was established as part of the Rietondale residential development, commissioned by John William Morrison, who bought the farm “Rietondale” in 1924. The Rietondale area is characterised by its strong sense of community and has a unique rural yet urban atmosphere, and generation after generation returns to live here. When I walk my dogs at the park I get a sense of nostalgia. This park has been left here for future generations to enjoy. It is such a peaceful place and the autumn leaves of the trees provide a magnificent optical spectacle.


The unruly tree in Vlok street, Silverton (taken by Elizabeth Forssman, 2016).

The unruly tree is the fourth narrative and simply cannot be ignored. Unruly trees are considered as trees that cause trouble: they grow too fast or too big or in the wrong way – the insidious tree that is a bother. It also explores something on the tension that exists between humans and their natural environment. However, acknowledging the unruly tree reminds us that they serve more than just a purpose to humans. As a result it reminds me of this tree in Pretoria East (see photograph). It always surprises those who see it for the first time. This tree exemplifies negotiation where a compromise was made between “man” and tree. The tree could stay and so the road was built around it and in the service of the community the tree now carries a road sign to warn road users of the unusual traffic arrangement!


Marnus recollected his sister’s wedding from a few years ago when I interviewed him about trees and the narrative of power. The wedding took place in Clarens in the Free State and the poplar trees at her wedding venue stood out for him the most. Poplar trees are not indigenous and tend to grow in large ‘colonies’ but were often planted on farms as a wind shield. Marnus thought the trees had this majestic quality to them when you look at up at them from the ground. He also felt the contrast of their status, big, hard rough barks, and the beauty of his sister in her soft gown was highlighted that day.

When we talked about trees in the narrative of heritage Marnus told me about the acorn trees in Potchefstroom. He studied at the University of North-West in the early 2000s and told me that as a student he did not appreciate the heritage around his student town back then. Those who are familiar with Potchefstroom know that it is a town known for its beautiful acorn trees. What people do not know however is that Potchefstroom is home to the longest acorn avenue in the world and is features in the Guinness World Book of Records. Marnus lived on this particular street as a student and is quite proud of the fact, now that he is older.

In the narrative of the unruly tree Marnus told me about a large tree outside his duplex which also served the purpose of service as it provided Marnus some privacy from his neighbours. The tree unfortunately caused problems for his neighbours’ satellite dish and so the tree was trimmed greatly. As a result Marnus had no more privacy from his neighbours. However, a few months later the tree grew back with such a vengeance and made so many additional shoots that Marnus has his privacy back!


Craig grew up in Muckleneuk and Brooklyn and therefore the Jacarandas that are so abundant in Pretoria was his recollection of heritage as narrative for trees. As a student at the University of Pretoria he was aware of the tradition that when one of those little purple flowers fall on your head that you would pass your exams, however, Craig said he did not believe much in that superstition.

At Craig’s grandmother’s home in Brooklyn there was a large avocado tree which reminded him of the service that trees provide. Avocado trees naturally make delicious fruits that are a favourite of many people. A massive lemon tree in the same garden evoked the same feelings toward the narrative of service for him.

The leafy suburbs of Brooklyn and Muckleneuk are definitely a symbol of power and status for Craig when he thinks of trees in terms of Power. Although, according to him, those areas were actually only middle class suburbs, they have certainly over the years evolved into places that represent wealth and status, and driving through the old suburbs definitely conveyed that particular message.

When talking to Craig on the unruly tree narrative he instantly thought of the Carob tree at our old house in Meyerspark. The tree definitely made its presence known throughout the year. Our dogs loved eating the fake ‘chocolate’ the tree provided by means of its seeds, and raking all the seeds was a weekly occurrence which never seemed to end.


For my mother, trees are the lungs of the earth and that is how she understood the narrative of service.  She said that she has a strong emotional connection to trees and that a tree provides a haven against the harsh sun along the road. She also explained that trees provide an excellent playground for children. She remembers as a child how she built her own tree house where she spent hours doing homework and daydreaming about the future.

On the narrative of power, my mother told me the story of the house she grew up in, in Vereenniging. Apparently their yard was quite a luscious one with many big trees and large shrubbery. It was quite a rare occurrence in that area to have a mature garden like that and according to her that definitely made an impact on their social standing in the town. Trees were definitely considered a symbol of wealth and class.

The unruly tree narrative reminded my mother of the house they have lived in since the 1970s. At the backdoor area where the washing line is situated there used to be a Peanut tree (she is not sure of the name). This tree was quite a messy tree which was problematic on laundry days. As a result they chopped down the tree and treated the stump with diesel and oil so that it will not grow back. For almost ten years the tree stayed a stump, when it suddenly started growing again. It has since grown into a full-grown tree again and they simply don’t have the heart to cut down the tree when after all the years as a treated stump persevered and started growing again.

My mother instantly thought of the Wonderboom tree in the suburb of Wonderboom, Pretoria North. The Wonderboom tree is apparently thousands of years old and is now declared national monument. It used to be a gathering point for when the Voortrekkers trekked up the North. They would regularly get together with their wagons there and it became a landmark and beacon for them.


Photo-elicitation provides an excellent means to start dialogue on specifically topics such as environmental issues. The visual narratives act as a catalyst to delve deep into people’s memories and understanding and they are able to open up and extend their own thoughts beyond what they thought possible. However, it will not always be the most effective method to use and as people are individuals results may vary from person to person.


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.


Author: ournatureourfuture

I am currently studying towards a BA degree in Visual Studies at the University of Pretoria. I hold a BCom (Communication Management) degree and obtained my Honours in Marketing Management in 2009 (also from the University of Pretoria).

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