Trees of Life: A series of Photo-Interviews

Photo Elicitation On Trees in our natural environment.


This essay will utilise the format of the photo elicitation, otherwise known as photo-interviewing, to obtain personal, historical anecdotal information from those interviewed concerning (Tinkler 2013:173) . The process of photo elicitation refers to the incorporation of photos in an interview, in an attempt to invoke memories and information from the person who is being interviewed.  The process of photo-elicitation is often regarded as a physical type of interview, where the Viewing and keeping photos in mind while conducting an interview allows the interviewed to go through and talk about thoughts pertaining to previous experiences that might have been suppressed.

I have chosen to interview individuals close to me, as they will be able to share stories about their memories with trees more eagerly, as people with ties to the interviewer usually are more willing to do so (Tinkler 2013:177).

These photo-interviews will make use of the topic of trees, and the part they have played in the collective human memory concerning narratives as outlined by Dean, on trees as a narrative off service, trees as a narrative of power, trees as a narrative of heritage and the counter-narrative of the unruly tree.

Photo Narratives

1: Narrative of service:


My mom and dad standing beneath a palm tree overlooking the sea. I can think of no better tree that humans consider of service to them than that of the Palm Tree. Having provided not only a source of food and flavouring to the local cuisine of islanders, or to people living on the coast, the palm tree is the epitome of a tree of life,\ of course, always suggested as the main source of help, as sun block, nourishment, and hydration to cast-aways in novels, and in survivalist shows!



2: Narrative of power:


Trees of the same type that have been planted in rows have been shown to invoke feelings of power when the viewer is confronted with them (Dean 2015:163). They speak of uniformity, according to Dean, to “tame the wildness”(Dean 2015:164). These trees in San Juan are banked off from the rest and planted in rows in the middle of the city.

3: Narrative of heritage:


The Turpentine Tree dots the hillsides of the fertile BVI in the Caribbean. For the locals, it has also become known as the Tourist Tree, for its red colour and strange peeling bark, reminiscent of the stereotypical tourists from Europe and elsewhere visiting the tropical islands of the BVI (British Virgin Islands), who forget that the sun and climate is much harsher to the skin than from where they’re from. It was rare to see these trees, local inhabitants find them unattractive for their blistering peeling bark, and cut theses indigenous trees down frequently. The turpentine tree is therefore a tree that ties in with local modern folklore, a tree of heritage in its own right (Dean 2013:164).


Counter-narratives: the unruly tree


Even though visually attractive, the owner of this little bar/pub on the island of Virgin Gorda, confided in us that he wished to cut down the palm trees that were casting shade over the swimming pool, to “open up the space” a little bit more.

Photo- Interviews

Desmond (Dad)

 Narrative of Service

Desmond, my father, starts off by talking about his childhood days. He grew up on a farm, and in the middle of this piece of land was a particularly large Eucalyptus Tree. In the tree they had built a very large treehouse, and they apparently they would also eat some of its gum. Him, his brother and his sister would climb very high in this tree and they had also put up a very high slide. Underneath the tree, they would find entertainment for themselves for hours. The treehouse would be improved over every school holiday. Over the school holidays, they would sleep over in the treehouse for days. He recalls the tree always being beautiful and green. He ends off on a sigh, saying that all he can say is, that the tree had a big impression on his childhood.

Narrative of Power

My dad mentions now how he got to know my mother. They had recently moved to Hartbeespoort, and my dad and grandad decided to start an ambitious project, build a 42 ft boat by themselves to take it down to Cape Town to launch after they had finished building it to sail around the world. At some point they needed help with the furnishing and wood work. My mom’s dad works with wood cabinets, furnishing and was also incidentally building a boat at the time. My dad makes mention about his first visit to my grandfather’s industrial wood workshop. He was astonished to see that much wood being cut up and manipulated into shapes that suit a specific human need. To my dad, this story directly related to a narrative of power in relation to trees. How humans manipulate trees by cutting them down, using their material to build transport, and in the distant past, imposing warships.

Narrative of Heritage

We have travelled a lot. My dad looked at my photo as an example of a tree as a narrative of heritage and he immediately thought of the olive tree and its significance in Greece. We sailed and basically lived in Greece on our boat for a little bit over 6 months. During this time we got to know the ways in which the Greek people revere and respect the olive tree, culturally and historically. The olive tree is a recurring theme in Greek mythology. My dad specifically refer to the myth of Daphne and Apollo, where Apollo chases madly in love after Daphne, a beautiful forest nymph, and she turns into the olive tree to escape him. The ultimate gift from Mount Olympus, the ancient gods, is even considered to be Olive oil.

Narrative of the Unruly Tree

My dad now refers to the one estate we rented a house in briefly back in 2013, Eldo Meadows. Back then the estate was still rather empty, with a lot of empty plots covered in grass and trees. My dad angrily starts by stating that the people who have their houses in estates seem to be very bothered by trees growing in their natural habitat, willing to rather replace it with kitsch looking bushes that they then cut into kitsch shapes. On the lawn next to the house was a tree growing freely. It was not part of our house or the neighbouring house’s ground. We could not conceive any reasons on why the neighbour would be bothered by the tree, but still got permission from the estate’s “council” to cut it down. Apparently he was just affronted by its sight bordering his well-manicured, kitsch lawn. Some of the houses in the estate even opted for fake, plastic grass for their front lawns. What can be said about this side of human preference for the artificial instead of the unruly, wild and uncontrolled natural.

Lynette (Mom)

 Narrative of Service

My mom; Lynette, referred to her childhood home. She spoke of her father, and how he had built their home at Hartbeespoort. The garden they had planned out, and it had quite a few trees that were notable to my mom. They had planted fruit trees, and especially had a favourite lemon tree, that wasn’t actually their own. It was the neighbours, and they would ask for baskets or bags full of the lemons. My grandmother would then bake cookies, muffins, lemon cheesecake and Lemon Meringue pie. My mom tells me that she and her sisters would excitedly look forward to asking their mom after school if they should ask for lemons from the neighbours, in the hopes that she would agree to make them something delicious. She wonders now if the tree is still standing, concurring that it probably still is, but also throught this tree they had formed a relationship with their neighbours. She then started to wonder what had become of the people, their neighbours.

 Narrative of Power

Lynette, speaks of how when she grew up in the early 70s in Hartbespoort. Back then they had still referred to it as “Nappy Town”, people still had to build their own houses in order to live there. This means that the people still had to plan their own gardens according to their own personal needs, or rather, their own wants.

Narrative of Heritage

My mother retold the story of Anegada’s Christmas Tree, after having been reminded of it after I showed her a photo I took of the “Tourist Tree” in Virgin Gorda in the BVI. During our last sailing trip there, we sailed to Anegada around Christmas season., thinking it would be more quiet. Not so much! My mom told about the fascination the islanders have with a Christmas tree that was erected on the Island, despite the tropical weather. It is the tallest Christmas Tree in the BVI, and is even maintained by the Anegada Cultural Committee. They have made the tree lighting ceremony a yearly event now, bringing people of the island together  and it is clear that a lot of meaning has been attached to this tree, especially when one takes into account the amount of care invested in maintaining it.

Narrative of the Unruly Tree

My mom makes further mention of Hartbeespoort, especially of the Schoemansville neighbourhood. and its current state. She mentions how the city council doesn’t really take care of cutting back trees, or just in general unruly foliage, anymore,  and how it has now taken over a lot of the old houses. Some of the old houses look abandoned that she used to be familiar with as a child. At first, she mentions how she wished they would maintain it for aesthetic reasons, perhaps to preserve her childhood. But then she mentions how she is happy that this bad management could in fact maybe attract birds and small reptiles back to the area.

Nicholas (Older Brother)

 Narrative of Service

My older brother, Nicholas, started off reminiscing on our younger days. When we were kids, at our first house in Midrand, Vorna Valley, we had a very large mulberry tree in our front yard. My brother used to bring silkworms back from school and would use the mulberry tree leaves as nourishment for them. I remember him picking off mulberries from heights I could not reach, and we would eat them.

 Narrative of Power

My brother took a look at the photo I provided and immediately connected it with the lines, rows, of trees outside his workplace. He works at Audi Hatfield. He thought that there might even be a connection, between this “narrative of power” between planting trees to show off status, to be outside the place Audi vehicles are sold, almost to show off the prestigious value this car brand apparently holds

Narrative of Heritage

My brother could not think of a story, or remember a story when I showed him the photo of the Turpentine/ Tourist Tree, despite giving him background on the story behind the tree’s naming and the ongoing folk speculation around it. I took this as an indication of the lack of information or knowledge that the public has on natural flora. It might also be an indication of how disinterested people have become when regarding the stories or history behind natural flora of any particular area.

Narrative of the Unruly Tree

Nicholas tells me about a tree we cut off at our first house at Vorna Valley. I remembered this as well, even though I was little, because I was standing in the way and I was scolded for putting myself in danger. This tree was in a very precarious position. It was squeezed between the wall of my parents’ bedroom and the neighbours wall, and a wall separating our front and back yard. Basically it was boxed in and its roots were causing havoc to our walls, and our neighbours started to complain about the trouble it was causing for them. My parents agreed to cut it down because it was blocking the view to the outside from their window. They complained that it was just an inappropriate place for it to be.



Those interviewed have shown the way they draw out information from photos, how they see a photo and reminisce, shows a great deal about a captured moment, and can provide vital and often forgotten, or overlooked,  information (Tinkler 2013:178). The anecdotal history found in these photo-interviews I have conducted, can help us create and visualise a timeline of the Anthropocene, and the effects that we have on our natural world. It is also proposed that the use of photos allow the interviewee to approach the photos with their own priorities and perspectives (Tinkler 2013:179). Some photo-interviews are unsuccessful because the photos that are chosen don’t elicit the interviewee’s engagement (Tinkler 2013:177). The interviews conducted give an oversight of personal narratives that people have experienced in regards to the natural world around them, here in particular with trees. A lot of these narratives very obviously forming part of their most cherished memories


Sources consulted

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.


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