‘The Unruly Tree’

Photo Elicitation


This blog post is a photo elicitation on the Dean’s (2015) The Unruly Tree: Stories from the Archives. Dean discuses how an individual’s experience of their environment can be shaped and influenced by trees as well as how a relationship is created between a human and tree. The four narratives Dean (2015) introduces are trees of service, power and heritage as well as the unruly tree (a counter narrative).

A photo elicitation is essentially the concept of inserting a photo into a research interview. This stimulates a more in depth discussion, reflection and recollection from both the interviewer and interviewee. Tinkler (2013) suggests that the two greatest benefits of a photo elicitation are that they encourage dialogue and that useful data is generated. Dialogue is encouraged through an image as it allows the subject to become relatable in a visual manner. The visual element acts as an ‘icebreaker’ (Tinkler, 2013), enabling a more comfortable flow in communication. Useful data is generated as the images kindle information, memories and emotions, which may have been unrecognised or forgotten otherwise.

Narrative ONE: Of service

A tree that assists or benefits human residents in some way (Dean, 2015).

Lemon Tree (Porter & Cu-Porter, 2002)

The first time I learned that fruits grow from trees was from a lemon tree in our garden at the age of four. I was fascinated by the idea that I can just pick a fruit from the tree and that another one will grow in its place. My mom let me pick the lemons when they were ripe and we made lemonade, just like I had seen on TV. The lemon tree served two purposes in my life. Firstly, it was of educational service in that taught me where some of my food came from and secondly, it allowed me to make a drink from its fruit.

BERTUS: My father’s office looks out on a very busy road, in addition there is a large construction site on the opposite side on the road, thus the noise levels can be very high. The staff would often complain of difficulty concentrating and hearing the phones, so company decided that a solution would have to be found. They planted tall evergreen trees along the wall and found that the noise pollution was lessened to a great extent.

TANYA: After living in an apartment for two years, we finally moved to a house with a garden when my sister was four years old. This was the first time that she can remember playing outside under the trees and that the two trees in the garden would be her den. She asked my mom to tie sheets between the trees to create a little house in which she would play with her dolls. The trees served as a little area of shelter and provided her with a new playing area

CORNÉ: There was a large mulberry tree in my mother’s garden. She explains how the mulberries became her favourite fruit as a result as she could pick a handful of berries without anyone knowing. In winter, when the tree was pruned she would play that the tree was a monster. The mulberry tree also allowed her to feed her silkworms, which was a part of her childhood that she particularly enjoyed.

Narrative TWO: Of power 

A tree which has am aesthetic purpose or symbolic is of race, class and status perhaps as a result of human control of nature (Dean, 2015).

Trees at Hampton Court Palace

In 2014, I travelled to London for the first time and was amazed at all the gardens in the parks and historical sites we visited. At Hampton Court Palace, the trees and hedges were so intricately trimmed, they seemed unnatural. It became clear to me that these trimmed trees were used to express the wealth and social status of the people that once lived there.

BERTUS: When looking for a house to purchase, my father looked at a number of areas in Pretoria, but was particularly attracted to Brooklyn due to the beautiful trees that surround  the roads. He felt that the maintenance of these trees and gardens meant that the residents were orderly people and able to take care their environment. Thus he saw the trees as a visual representation of the people who live near them.

TANYA: My sister wasn’t able to identify very well with this narrative. However, she did agree with my dad in that trees and gardens spaces in neighbourhoods can give an indication of the resident’s social status.

CORNÉ: My great grandfather graphed a prune and peach tree so that it would carry both fruits. To my mother, this was a very fascinating concept as it showed her how humans can influence nature to such an extent that a tree can suddenly have two fulfil two types of appetite. In addition, she describes how beautiful the tree looked with the different blossoms and fruits that filled it is spring and summer. The tree gives an example of how humans can take control of nature.

Narrative THREE: Of heritage

A tree of heritage can be a notable landmark in an area or associated with a historical happening, myths, legends or traditions and is thus strongly linked to the identity of a community (Dean, 2015).

Cherry Blossoms

When I first learned that we were going to move to China, my first thought was ‘blossoms.’ Although I knew very little about China at the time, I always associated it with cherry blossoms and it became one of my favourite sites in Beijing. The blossoms are a symbol of new beginnings and are particularly important at Chinese New Year (during Spring time) to symbolise the new year to come.

BERTUS: To my father the most important tree of heritage is our Christmas tree as it has been a part of his family’s traditions for many generations. As a child, he would go to the bush with his grandfather and cut down a stem of a tree they liked. That evening the whole family would gather to decorate the stem as the Christmas tree for that year. My father has since continued that tradition with us. Although we aren’t able to go to the bush each year, we go out and buy a tree in the first week of December and decorate it as a family. The tree carries a considerable value in our family, bringing everyone together.

TANYA: On a school trip, my sister went to Japan and visited a number of Japanese gardens. She was very intrigued by the Bonsai trees and explains that they are very significant to the Japanese culture, particularly in their ‘Zen’ gardens. The trees are appreciated not only as a natural element, but also as an art form. To her, however they are a symbol of wealth after seeing how costly Bonsais are at our local nursery.

CORNÉ: My mother was very disappointed not to see any Jacaranda blossoms upon her first visit to Pretoria as she felt that these trees are significantly expressive of Pretoria’s identity as a city. Later on in her life, as she went to study at the University of Pretoria she realised that the trees only bloom later in the year during exam time. The Jacaranda’s importance as a landmark in Pretoria shifted to her as becoming a way to celebrate and commemorate her time at university. She recalls that during her exam periods, she sat under the Jacaranda trees in the hope that a flower would fall on her for good luck. If it didn’t they would shake the tree until one did.

Narrative FOUR: Counter narratives

This is the counter narrative in which the tree may be considered as being a cause of inconvenience or irritation to humans (Dean, 2015).

Poplar Trees


Poplar trees produce white fluffy seeds throughout the beginning months of summer in Beijing. It covered the trees, paths, gardens and pond in a layer of white, like snow. This was a big nuisance as I became quite allergic to it, yet there was no way to avoid it. The fluff would blow into in even if the door is just quickly opened to enter or exit the house. In addition, the fluff would block the pond’s pumps as a result the water began smell terrible. Since these trees provide so much shade and create calming atmosphere, it would be a shame to remove them, yet their seeds are a big irritant.  

BERTUS: Just before my father was born, my grandfather planted a willow tree in their garden. Throughout the years, as safety became a concern a wall was build on the garden’s perimeters. The tree continued to grow and its roots spread across the garden.  My father noticed the wall slanting within the first year of its existence and within two years the wall fell. My father and grandfather could not understand why the wall had become so unstable so quickly. Upon further inspection, they realised that the willow tree’s roots had grown into the walls foundation and completely destroyed it despite having been planted five meters from it.

TANYA: There is a very large Poplar tree growing outside my sister’s bedroom making her bedroom very dark and she hates it for it. She has to put on her lights when studying during the daytime as she struggles to read anything with so little light entering her room. In addition, during summer she can’t open her windows due to the fluffy seeds the tree produces. On a particularly hot day in June, she left her window open, to find her entire room and bed covered in white fluff.

CORNÉ: As a child, my mother loved playing under the oak trees in summer. The shade provided them some shelter from the sun, whilst they used the acorns as tea cups and dolls in their games. However, in winter the oak shed so many leaves that the were unable to play there, especially since they were afraid of what my lie underneath the leaves. The teachers warned them of the snakes that may be hibernating below the leaves and as a result they completely avoided the oak trees in winter.


The photo elicitation allowed for an easy and natural flow and understanding of the concepts the interviewer way aiming to convey. It enabled both parties to come to terms with the significance trees play in their lives, which previously went unnoticed.

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.

Todd Porter & Diane Cu-Porter. 2000. Unknown [ONLINE]. Available at: http://whiteonricecouple.com/garden/lemon-tree-for-container-gardening/ [Accessed 11 May 2016].


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