Thursday, 12 May 2016

Using Photo - Elicitation To Understand How We Relate To Trees.

Photo - Elicitation 

By Bonolo Mokwele Meso 


"We like to tell stories about city trees.The stories shape our thinking, but more materially they shape our management of the trees. The meanings we find in these stories influence the choices we make when we plant trees in the city , they alter the ways that we trim and control the trees, and, finally they inform our decisions to fell them" ( Dean 2015:162). 

From the aforementioned, this blog will conduct a Photo elicitation with three different people on the four narratives on trees provided by Dean (2015:173). Those narratives are namely the narrative of service, the narrative of power, the narrative of heritage and the counter narrative.

According to Tinkler (2013) a photo elicitation can also be called a photo interview. The difference between interviews using images and text, and interviews using words alone lies in the ways we respond to these two forms of symbolic representation . This has a physical basis : the parts of the brain that process visual information are evolutionary older than the parts that process verbal information. Furthermore images evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than words do, photo elicitation's are not merely verbal interviews but are interviews that elicit more information and emotion.( Harper 2002 : 13) Tinkler(2013:173-174) also mentions that photo materials are a tool for research on a social and historical level and that is deliberately used in interviews to "prompt discussion, reflection and recollection". Tinkler opines that photos entourage people to talk more openly in interviews, which also creates an environment of comfort when interviews are conducted.  

I will first give my own personal account on the four  narratives previously mentioned, then I will conduct a photo interview with my grandmother,father and friend.

 Personal Narrative On Trees 

It is no wonder that trees have captured the human imagination since the beginning of time. Their strength, deeply rooted in the Earth, is an inspiration. Their trunk and branches are a wonder of nature because they stand sturdy and impenetrable most of the time, yet they can flex and sway with the wind when needed.
The whisper of a breeze in their leaves or the sight of ants marching in a straight line up or down their trunks remind us of the magic of nature that trees embody. They live for hundreds or even thousands of years, and so we revere them as keepers of past secrets and sentinels of the future.
Watching their cycles of growth, shedding of leaves, and re-flowering in the spring, people have long perceived trees as powerful symbols of life, death, and renewal. Since the beginning of time, humans have had a sense that trees are sentient beings just like us, that they can feel pain, that they bleed when they are hurt. Trees even look like us. People have a trunk; trees have arms. And so we innately feel a deep connection to them.
Many people say they can feel a tree’s vibrational  energy when placing their hand upon its bark. With their deep roots, trees carry significant grounding energy. We naturally feel peace and serenity when walking in the shade of trees or on a forest trail.

1. The narrative of service. 

According to Dean (2015:162) trees are constantly: "selflessly providing services to the human residents of the modern city. the most valued environmental benefit provided in the nineteenth century was shade".We plant trees primarily for their beauty and to provide shade but they do create many other benefits.
Trees  sooth and relax us and help us connect to nature and our surroundings. The color green - is a calming, cool color that helps your eyes quickly recover from strain. 

Photo By  Me

 When I was a little girl , I used to look up to my brother in always possible , to an extent I even wanted to be him because he could swiftly climb up the trees in our garden and he would pretend to be George of the jungle or Tarzan. So as a result I would abandon all my girly toys in pursuit of leaning how to climb the trees in our garden  and ultimately being like my brother. This tree in front of our house not only provided lots of shade for us during the summer , but it was also home for many birds in our community especially the piet my vrou bird which our street is named after.  
One day my brother and I decided to erect a tree house on this very tree , we had received the inspiration from the movie "the little rascals" , so every day after school we would assemble troops just like in the movie and we would attempt to build this tree house, lets just say the tree house was an epic fail , our dream tree house turned out to be nothing but a shame so we aborted the mission.  

2. The Narrative of Power 

According to Dean (2015: 163) Landscape historians have observed , long lines of identical trees , alike in age and in type , speak of the human control of nature, and of a grace born of power. Georges- Eugene Hausssmann tamed Paris with a geometry of wide modern avenues lined with chestnut trees.The effect was to pacify a city with beauty. Just like in Paris a lot of these trees which are in lines are seen in South African  cities and metros usually in public places and on streets. Dean (2015 : 164) opines that identical trees are planted in this particular way in order to bring about the illusion of harmony. Landscape historians explored the beauty of these tree ranks of trees , and showed how these trees spoke of wealth and power in the human built environment. 

Photo By Me 

When my lecturer Mr Rory Duplessis gave his own personal account on the narrative of power with regards to trees, I immediately thought about the long trees that I pass by everyday when I go to school in Irene Centurion. Everyday when I pass by this avenue I think of wealth and how wealthy the people living in this area must be. I always feel like  I am part of some Hollywood movie when i drive past this road.The one movie that always comes to mind is the movie The Bodyguard which stars Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. In the movie there is a scene where Whitney Houston is found jogging around her big yard with a lot of tall trees. The camera man zooms in profoundly at these trees (which are in a line ) as if to say to the viewer look at how wealthy people live.    

3. Narrative of Heritage 

According to Dean (2015: 164). Paul Arid's influential definition of the heritage tree, adopted by the Ontario Heritage Tree Program, makes a nod to aborigional uses of trees, but he emphasises the beauty of an individual specimen and its associations with human history : these characteristics includes size, shape, form ,beauty , age, colour , rarity , genetic construction , or other distinctive features. It can also be a community landmark. The tree can furthermore be be associated with a historic person , place , event, or period. the heritage narrative can take the form of a tree being associated with local folklore, myths legends or traditions. (Aird 2005) 

Every time I see these leaves on the ground from the trees outside my house / yard, I know winter is upon us , my birthday is coming and I am going to start writing my winter exams. These leaves symbolise a period of shorter days and longer cold nights. I actually despise these two trees outside our house, because  my mom would force me to clean up the leaves on the ground at the age of 8 or so, even though I did not like the chore and I  completely hated it. I had no choice because I was just a member of parliament my Mom was the head of state.

4. The Counter Narrative 
Dean (2015 : 166) brings in the counter argument to the aforementioned narratives,  he says that the above narratives subordinate trees to human needs, we need to move beyond the anthropocentric narratives and consider the unruly, ungovernable, ill-mannered trees in the urban landscape. 
Dean states that trees that cause trouble , are  ornamental trees that make a mess , they are those street trees that refuse to stay in line , or grow too big , too fast, or in the wrong way and service trees that emit allergenic pollen. 

Photo by Me 

Meet my backyards rebel "mother nature" , This is a tree I thoroughly enjoyed playing on , or sleeping under during a hots summers day. This tree used to be the landmark of my backyard it used to be so big and green my brother and I even named it "mother nature". This tree started becoming unruly when it started to seriously interfere with our sewerage system as you can see in the image. The roots of the tree were growing to such an extent that our swere pipes would get blocked , at some point we would not be able to flush the toilet because the pipes had burst  or we had some form of plumbing tsunami because of the tree. So my dad decided to cut this tree and is still trying to get rid of whats left of mother nature to date .  

I then interviewed my grandmother , father and friend. I showed them my images and gave them my own personal narratives that Dean provides and they were more than happy to help me . 

  Interview with my grandmother : Mrs Dora Evelyn Makoti 

1.The narrative of service 

"I grew up in an area known as  Mapetla in the Township known as Soweto. Because we lived in the township there were not a lot trees planted by the previous apartheid government, I don't know if they thought because we are black we did not need or deserve trees in our townships, but anyway the apartheid system was set up to destroy the black man "they" did not regard us as human beings anyway. So it was up to the residents of Soweto to plant their own trees and  create their own gardens. One particular tree I fondly remember  as a young girl, is the big peach tree in my neighbors garden Ntate Kop. This tree was really big and provided us his neighbors with  good shade during the hot summers. This tree not only provided us with shade but it also provided us with peaches which my mom and Mrs Kop canned and sold , sometimes they would make  jam , which we all thoroughly enjoyed around Christmas times with freshly baked scones."  

2. The narrative of power 

" I enjoy visiting nature reserves and i especially enjoy going to the nursery and picking out stuff for my garden. I am a big fan of flowers and i would say I am an architect of beauty myself , I have  arranged my  roses in such a way that when you drive by my house you think of class and success. I work very hard at keeping my garden classy as I am a classy woman myself. I have aligned all my roses according to colour. the one thing I would say also complements my garden is the big tree in front of the house it surrounds my roses . I would say , my garden is my little utopia of beauty." 

My Classy Grandmother 

3. The narrative of heritage 

" When I think of the notion of heritage and a tree , the first thing that comes to mind is the Willow tree" Because i do believe at some point the Willow tree was our national tree , I stand to be corrected though, but anyway when i think of Heritage and a tree I think of the tree that has very slender branches and hangs like an old lady's breasts not mine though" (she laughs).  

Photo by

4. The counter narrative 

" Okay I don't know what to say regarding the counter narrative but what i will say though is that not a lot of people like the thorn tree , most people consider it to be an unfriendly tree because it has thorns that can pick you and potentially really hurt you. I would think that is why you will hardly ever find a thorn tree in Soweto, in fact I don't recall ever seeing it. I was only exposed to thorn trees when i went to the rural areas to visit my grandmother in the Free State."  

Photo by

Interview with my father Mr Tebedi Moffat Meso 

1. The narrative of service 

" Well , I grew up in Bochum a village in the Limpopo province now formally known as Senwabarwana. My family was slightly poor when I growing up and I say slightly because my father was a cattle herder , he had a lot cattle, cows and donkeys , so i would say in that sense we were wealthy. in terms of the narrative of service, we had plenty of fruit trees at home we had an orange tree , a mango tree and a whole lot of murula trees and avacado trees.  These trees provided us with fruits of which my mother sold to make a living to at least feed her five kids . My Mother would also brew alcohol form the murula fuit for special occasions like weddings , funerals (not that is a special occasion) and parties in general."      

Murala Tree in Bouchm 

2. The narrative of power 

" In all honesty, its hard for me to think of trees and power in that  context because when i think of where i come from in particular , I think of poverty and slavery. But what I will say is that when I first came to Pretoria in the early 9o's I marveled at the purple city and its beauty , all i could think of was that song by Prince "purple rain" ( he sings the tune). That for me was power. It made me realise that the "white people" who colonised us the black people in South Africa, really enjoyed the wealth of our country and the beautiful cities , which they kept for themselves." 

3. The narrative of heritage 

" Ahh , I remeber when I was a young boy , the older people would tell us stories, it was normally the grannies who would  tell us lovely stories around the fire. and one story I  remember is the story about the Boab tree,  who was a very silly old tree, he was personified as an old man who stole or rather swallowed children who roam the forest at night. So I remember this on day looking for this one sheep, because i was Sheppard you see , we as boys had to lead the animals into the fields after school for grazing. So I remember I lost this one sheep , it was getting late and I remember fearing  for my life because of the Boab tree(man) who was going to swallow me. I was not afraid of the hiding I was going to receive when I got home because I had lost a sheep ,no I was afraid of the Boab tree that was going to bring my life to an end".     

4. The counter narrative 

"My counter narrative will also be the thorn tree, in the village Bouchm there is plenty of thorn trees, many people do not understand the purpose of these trees but they really are not all that bad, these tress actually protect birds and serve as homes to other insects and reptiles. People do not like these trees because they find them un-pleasurable."

Interview with my friend Miss Amu Mabena 

1. The narrative of service 

" Well friend, I really love trees and I personally hate how people cut them down especially now recently on Lynwood road just outside the main gate of the University of Pretoria they have cut down the Jacaranda trees , I don't understand why, because those trees provided so much beauty to our university or rather our city". 

2. The narrative of power 

" I actually don't know how to answer this one. I remember when I first came to Tuks , and I had my first class in the Law Building, I walked by the graduate center to the Law building, I remember how overwhelmed I felt when i walked passed those booming jacaranda trees. I felt like I was stepping into Havard University or something ".

Photo By Me : By The Law Building 


3.The narrative of heritage 

 " I grew up in Pretoria so my point of reference will always be the jacaranda tree , this to me symbolises my Pretorian  heritage , when i was a little girl I always used to refer to these trees as magic trees from the tv show Barney and friends."   

 Sources consulted 

Aird, P . (2005) Forestry Chronicle, 81(4) : 593 

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

Harper, D. 2002. Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies Vol 17,No 1. New York :Routledge : 14 -22 

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

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