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!

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