Archive for June, 2010

Interview with Sam Diephius, LA taco truck photographer

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on June 7, 2010

Sam Diephius first contacted me at the end of March, and fortunately has been patient enough (and nudged me with a few emails) to interview him. I was impressed with his photographs and his tenacity, so here goes.

1) On your website, you have a collection of 22 Los Angeles street vendors. Some of them are taco trucks and some are those guys that sell oranges by the freeway and the like. How did you select the people and places that you shot? Were they receptive to it?

In the neighborhood (Venice) where I live there are roving grocery trucks that show up late in the day to sell to the local community. I’ve used them quite a few times for picking up little things like tortillas, avos, tomatoes, et cetera. I always admired the way families or friends hang out around the trucks as sort of a meeting area to talk about the day and share story.

One day when I was frustrated about my job, I thought, “why am I flying half way around the world when there are amazing stories in front of my house”? I walked down and started talking to one of the truck drivers and asked him if I could photograph him, and in exchange I would give him a picture. He was a little hesitant because it was a little bit strange to him to have someone setting up lights and asking him to move around, smile, and be a model, but he was very happy when I gave him the picture the next day. These guys are very proud of their trucks and they are always happy when I bring them a picture of them with their trucks.

From there it was on, and I started asking everyone who sells things on wheels, Ice cream, fruit venders and even the pork rhine guy, but I knew the taco truck was going to be the holly grail. Most people are a little hesitant, but after I show them a few photos they are usually excited about the project. Since they are working I try and pay them $10-$20 for their time. Time is money for them and I try and pay them accordingly. The shoots last anywhere from 10 minutes to 2-3 hours depending on the situation. Some of the taco truck parks out in East LA have hours of prep time before they hit the road and they are usually open to just about anything as long as they can keep working. Good people for sure!

2) What did you learn on your odyssey through “El Barrio,” as you call it? Where in LA were you shooting exactly? Why did you pick those locations?

Actually this project turned out to be a lot more than just about the vendors and taco trucks. Most of the street vendors (vendors that don’t own a vehicle and sell on the street corners) are here illegally and are just trying to make ends meet. They work really long hours with little pay and have large families to support back in their home country. The people in my pictures aren’t taking American jobs, getting into trouble, causing problems, but they are here illegally. With all this talk about immigration in the press this project really brought this complicated issue front and center for me. One thing I can tell you is that Latin America has influenced our way of life in America in some awesome ways. For example, I can’t tell you the last time I had apple pie, but I can tell you when I had a couple tacos: yesterday!

Most of the images were made in Venice or in East LA. East LA is an awesome place to visit and if you haven’t been you should go. It is full of life and energy very similar to being in a different country.

East LA is a great location for shooting pictures of the Latin American culture and people, and the taco trucks are everywhere. It’s just a part of the lifestyle there. There are amazing murals and street art around every corner and it feels very alive. LA can really get a bad rap and for good reason sometimes, but East LA is really the center of the Latin American culture here and it can feel like it’s own city.

3) What do you look for when shooting street vendors? How do you try to vary your shots? What would you suggest to amateurs who shoot taco trucks in terms of approaching taqueros and also in terms of framing? I feel like it’s easy to just shoot the standard side or angled view of the truck, y’know?

Usually what I am looking for is someone this isn’t busy. If they are making sales I don’t want to bug them. After I’ve found someone I will go and introduce myself and show them what I am working on. Most of the time I will come back another day. This gives me time to think about what I want to do and how I will light it. Sometimes I take the subject to another location with a better back ground or different light and other times I will shoot them right where they are.

Anyone can make a snap shot of a taco truck (“lonchera”) but to make a picture that is unique the photographer needs to slow down a bit. Here’s a list of things to think about before photographing.

I. The most important thing is making your subject feel comfortable, knowing a little Spanish can go a long way in making the model feel relaxed.

II. Setting up shoots with the subject and returning another day can take some of the pressure off the model. Keep in mind most of the owners of the trucks and venders in the street are working, find out if there are certain times of the day that are slower for them and come back then.

III. Showing them an example of what you have done before can help them understand what you are trying to photograph.

IV. Always be polite and ask before shooting a picture. Try and give something back to the model no matter how little. Even buying what they are selling is a good start. Who knows you may try something that you’ve never had.

V. Sometimes I use natural light and sometimes I work with a lot of lighting, it all depends on the shot. By using lights I can accent different areas of the truck or the owners. Night images work nicely as well. Using natural street light or the light from the taco trucks can give a “real” feeling to the subject.

VI. Breaking the repetition. Let’s face it, taco trucks can look very similar. etting to know your subjects can make a huge difference in accessing different angles and locations of the trucks and the venders. If they feel comfortable you can then move them to a different location. Also moving in and out and up and down while looking trough the view finder will help to see things differently.

4) How does shooting in your backyard (Los Angeles) compare with shooting in some of the other international locations that you’ve worked in, like Jamaica and Burma? Are there any major similarities? Differences?

Shooting in LA is awesome. Going out shooting, coming home, sleeping in my own bed can make a big difference. The problem I have is that I can get easily distracted here. When I am in another country I don’t have a lot of options of distraction and I make more pictures. It is also hard to see the amazing things around me when I am at home because I see them every day. In another country everything is different and new.

Most of the photography basics from the list above apply directly to other countries. Sometimes I have to be more careful than other in other countries. For example, China and Burma are very safe, Kingston, Jamaica on the other hand I have to keep my wits about me. LA can be a little uncomfortable at times as well. The truth is that I find most people around the world to be very friendly and are interested in what I am doing and photographing.

5) What’s your favorite taco truck in LA? What do you typically order?

Gosh, where do I start? There’s so many “taco trucks” now a days that they are starting to spill over into other cuisines, Korean bbq, Brazilian, Texas ribs, grilled cheese, the list goes on, but I have to say the taco truck that sells actual tacos is the best. Let’s just say that (although they might be amazing) if your truck has a Twitter account, you are not a taco truck. They can have their sushi, kimchi, and crepe “taco trucks” and I will stick with my standard al pastor tacos or veggie with the works, I will do asada, or chicken burrito any day. On a side note, if I could, I would eat them ever day!

I don’t really have a specific truck I love but I will say this, my favorite truck is when I’m super hungry, it’s late at night, everything is closed, I’ve just finished a big work day, right when I am too lazy and tired to sit down for a meal and I’ve given up and am submitting to eating cereal for dinner. The one that appears on the side of the road with it’s lights on at that point in time is my favorite!

Longtime followers of taco trucks issues in the Golden State may remember the veritable bevy of laws that have come and gone that threaten our beloved taqueros. After that, it became clear that taco trucks owners need to get organized.

The old school trucks have formed the aforementioned Asociacíon de Loncheros (which, by the way, is being honored by the LA chapter of the National Lawyers Guild this Sunday night!), while the new school has gotten together to crate the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. They were the minds behind the ill-fated Santa Monica food truck lot, which lasted just one day.

But it was only a matter of time before one of those groups — both of which registered as 501c6 organizations, which means they are trade associations that can engage in political speech — took on a political stance.

Since late last month, the SCMFVA, which represents a lot of nouveau trucks in downtown LA and on the Westside, have formally endorsed Betsy Butler (D) for the 53rd Assembly District in the California State Assembly.

Why?

“She sees the benefit of food trucks in that area,” explained Matt Geller of SCMFVA, in an interview with LAist.

Previously, the SCMFVA endorsed Cary Brazeman for a seat on the Mid-City West Community Council, which is in charge of that oft-conflicted mid-Wilshire district.

So now the question is, how long before we start seeing stance on taco trucks as an item in campaign literature?

Get Jerked: Interview with Amira Jackmon, co-founder

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on June 2, 2010

Although it doesn’t get as much play as its brethren across the Bay or down in LA, the East Bay does have quite a number of taco/food trucks: both new school and old school. In fact, my favorite all-time taco truck remains El Ojo de Agua in Fruitvale. Amongst thew new school, we’ve got Jon’s Street Eats, Cupkates, Liba SF and countless others. But Get Jerked is the first truck that I’m aware of to bring flavors of the Caribbean to my beloved East Bay. Amira Jackmon’s, the truck’s founder, gave me the low-down.

1) Amira, you went from corporate law to food? Huh? How’d that happen? And what’s your connection to the Caribbean, anyway? What about your partner?

Yes. I guess you could say that I went from Wall Street to Main Street. That happened when the firm that employed me for eight years let go of about 100 people in March of 2009. I was one of them. Frankly, I’m not sad about it; it’s been a good thing. I’ve always had an inclination to be entrepreneurial and have dabbled in various ventures over the years. I just never had the courage to fully take the leap on my own. I actually purchased the food truck in 2007 while I was on maternity leave with my son, who’s now almost three. It was my intention to manage the truck from home and not return to the firm so that I could stay home with my son. (What can I say…I’m a Pisces. We’re known to be dreamers!) It turned out not to be such an easy thing to run a taco truck while taking care of a newborn. So my plans got delayed a bit. The firm giving me the boot, in the end, was the push that I needed to finally get the food truck up and running. My legal skills are something that I will always have and that I utilize almost every day in my food business. I also maintain a small practice on the side that I might expand in the future as time permits.

As far as my connection to the Caribbean, I am an African-American who loves and claims all African-derived cultures as my own. I consider us the same people; my ancestors just happened to get off at a different port of call. I reconnected with the Caribbean side of my family during my freshman year of college. It happened the moment I went to my first house party. The big crew on campus at the time was the “Queens Posse” a group of freshmen girls who all hailed from the area around Jamaica, Queens, New York. During the reggae set, one of them started dancing, hands on the ground, legs cocked up in the air and feet on the wall, winding and grinding her waist against some dude to no end. Outwardly, being the nice little Christian girl from Fresno that I was, I was appalled. But, secretly, I longed to “get on bad” just the same way. It took me about four years to learn how to do the butterfly (the popular dancehall reggae move from the early 90s) but I persisted and by the time I graduated, I had it down. It’s funny because that same girlfriend, who back then teased me about being so “corny,” has become a close friend of mine. Now, she’s the straight laced, Bible toting conservative, and, while you won’t really find me anywhere dancing upside down, I do consider myself a pretty good “wind-er.” So I think there’s been a nice bit of cultural exchange between the two of us.

2) We have Korean tacos, Chinese tacos and now Jamaican tacos? Why do tacos work so well? Or is it just cause all Californians love tacos? Do you think there’s any cuisine that couldn’t be taco-ified?

I think part of it is definitely a California thing. Every good Californian loves a taco. I’m still shocked when I meet people, obviously non-natives, who tell me that they don’t like tortillas. What’s not to like about a tortilla?

But I also think that, in part, we’re witnessing an evolution of the American taste bud. If you grow up eating tacos, eventually, you’re going to long for something different. I think many of us are, frankly, a little bored with Mexican food. Recently at an event that I did, the Mexican family selling pupusas two booths away from kept coming to my stand all night for more jerk tacos. By the end of the night, they were asking me for tips on how to prepare sorrel (sold in Mexican restaurants as “Jamaica”).

It’s just like with Asian food. I would venture to say that most Americans were introduced to Asian cuisine through the Chinese. But now, I can’t think of anyone I know who regularly goes to eat Chinese. It’s either Thai or Vietnamese or Indian or something more “exotic.” My prediction is that, unless traditional Mexican restaurants step up their game and start to introduce some more complex sauces and spices, like more of the moles and sauces from areas that Americans are not as familiar with, then the Mexican restaurant will be in danger of being relegated to that place you go to when you’re hungry, and it’s late, and there’s nothing else to eat.

3) Do you really have a steel drum in the truck? Where/how do you cook the chicken? Why no roti on the menu? What about ginger beer?

I don’t have a steel drum on the truck. I actually recently did an event where I prepared jerk chicken in a steel drum outside of the truck and I plan to do that from time to time. But serving traditional jerk chicken is not really what Get Jerked! is about. I think there are other good Caribbean restaurants here in the bay to serve that market. (My favorite right now is Coconuts in Palo Alto). I’ve even heard of a jerk chicken cart in San Francisco, though I haven’t tried it yet. What I’m trying to do with Get Jerked! is to capture the attention of those people who would never really venture to try Caribbean cuisine except for the fact that it’s being offered to them in a format that they can understand: a taco, a sandwich, a burger. If I happen to attract the traditionalists at the same time, then all the better.

Roti is on the menu and I have offered it and plan to offer it again from time to time.

I might offer ginger beer in the future when I find a good supplier or find the time to make my own.

4) Growing up in Fresno, what was your favorite thing to order at taqueria/taco trucks? What does your partner make of taco trucks? What’s your current favorite non-Twittering taco truck?

I never really ate from taco trucks growing up. In fact, I can only remember there being one taco truck in Fresno at the time and we never ate from it. We cooked tacos at home. We probably cooked tacos more often than we fried chicken. It was quick and easy. Plus it was something us kids, with a working mother, could handle on our own. I can remember times as a kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, downing like 12 tacos in one sitting.

My first time eating from a taco truck was actually during law school at a truck in East Palo Alto. If my memory serves me correctly, it was called Three Brothers. It’s no longer there but I believe they now have a restaurant that’s doing pretty well.

I don’t really play favorites when it comes to traditional taco trucks. To me, traditional taco trucks are all about convenience. I go to whichever one happens to be closest when I’m hungry and need something to eat that’s cheap and quick.

5) Tell me more about this shark and bake sandwich. Surely you must be able to find it here in some fish store, no? Have you ever tried to make it at home here?

I’ve seen shark in local grocery stores though I can’t say where it was from and I’ve never really researched it for use on the truck. I don’t really see a shark sandwich being in high demand here in the bay area. It’s like my former dance teacher, Carlos Aceituna (of Bay Area group Fogo na Ropa, may he rest in peace) once told me about why his relationship with his Brazilian born girlfriend didn’t work out once he moved her to the U.S.: some things don’t translate well. What may make sense to enjoy on the beach in Trinidad, where shark is plentiful, may not go over as well here in Northern California where there’s more of a concern with issues of sustainability.

Bake is relatively easy to make. But I don’t really see me offering it on the truck any time soon. That’s because what I’m trying to achieve through the truck is more life, not less life. Maybe if I had four or five good friends around me who all had nothing better to do except to sit around in a circle with me and gossip while we all rolled and kneaded bake from scratch then that might be fun. Until that day, I’d rather just go around the corner from my house to Acme Bread and order a high quality roll made locally from organic ingredients that pretty much everyone in the bay area loves and call it a day, which is what I do.