Casey Parks is a writer, videographer, and photographer for the Oregonian newspaper. Her work there is largely focused on covering both city government and schools. A major emphasis of the stories she chooses to tell involve writing and filming about the experience of Oregon teenagers.
In addition to her work for the Oregonian, Casey also creates short video interview series about the people in her life, usually based around a singular topic or idea.
When I was 14:
Jon Miller: What style of story do you find the most interesting to cover?
Casey Parks: Some of the other videographers at the Oregonian prefer to create a video by first securing solid visuals. I was a writer long before I was a photographer though, and I like videos that have a good story. To get that, you need someone who is a good interview. It’s hard enough getting people to open up to you for a written story. But in an article, you can work around that by just hanging around long enough, or pulling things out slowly, or inferring, or talking to other people. With a video camera, you’re not only more intimidating, you also can’t work around any holes. What the person says is what you have. That said, I’m most interested in reporting about teenagers. Sometimes they don’t make the best video subjects (such insecurity! so many “likes” and “ums”) but I have found a few who were really candid and comfortable being themselves. Or maybe they were uncomfortable, but they let you see that in a compelling way. Those are my favorites.
JM: The adolescent experience does seem to be a recurring theme, not only in your work for the Oregonian, but also your personal creative projects. More so though, it seems that you are fascinated with the idea overcoming expected mediocrity. What are your feelings on contemporary youth culture? Does there seem to be much of a shift in the way young people identify as individuals now vs. the experiences recounted in your When I Was 14 project?
CP: Portland is such a different town than the ones I grew up in (mostly in Louisiana). So, yeah, the teens I meet through work are much different than I was. But I don’t know how much of that is growing up now as opposed to growing up in Portland. But they do all seem to be more savvy. They’re more clued-in about the world, more clued-in about themselves. I could just be choosing savvy people to interview, though. I’m not sure. Either way, I wouldn’t say I’m a modern teenager expert. I just like interviewing them because no one else at my paper really does, and the teens themselves are usually pretty excited to be in the paper.
JM: How do you imagine hypothetical When I was 14 interviews with modern teens would differ from those with the adults you are currently filming?
CP: Oh, I think they’ll be embarrassed by themselves just as all my friends are embarrassed of our 14-years-old selves. They’ll also, I think, like us, feel amused and probably some kind of weird love for their own self. For instance, one of my 25-year-old friends talked about how her parents were divorced and how sad she felt, how she watched her brother play video games and felt lonely. It’s hard to really express all that while you’re in it, to put all the pieces together. I do feel like kids start that nostalgizing fairly early, though. When I did a story about Miss Junior Gay Pride, who is 18, she talked about being 14 in ways not so different than I might. She regretted her hair and clothing decisions. She longed the crazy sleepovers or lunch-time antics she had then. At 18, she feels like she already knows the world so much better than she did then. I imagine that feeling will just grow. The same was true of an 18-year-old I interviewed who was training to become a sheriff’s deputy. His parents were deported for selling methamphetamine, and he spent age 14 in Mexico. But when I asked him about it, what he remembered was how ugly his hair was, how into skateboarding he had been, and how the music he had liked was cheesy.
JM: It’s strange how similar the coming of age experience can be despite the seemingly substantial changes in the physical setting and circumstances. What are your memories of being 14? Were you an over achiever like the kids you interview?
CP: When I was 14, I was an overachiever in school but not in other ways. I didn’t really join clubs or do things outside of myself or school. I read a lot (I even wrote reports from encyclopedias just for fun!) and went to church a lot. I had an awful hairstyle. I used this product Sun-in to “highlight” my hair. Instead, it turned it bronze. I spent two years growing it out, so my hair was bronze on the bottom, brown at the roots. I was really awkward and bossy. My parents were separated, and I lived with my dad, which meant I got away with a lot more than I should. My curfew was something like 4 a.m. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have friends, so I didn’t take advantage of it all that often.
JM: Have you ever done any film work about your family and your experiences with them?
CP: Yes. The first was with my little brother. Last year, he got out of the military and got really involved in anti-war demonstrating. While I was visiting him in Texas, I interviewed him on video. There were so many things I could never ask just as his sister, but with the camera wedged safely between us, I asked everything I ever wanted to know. We ended the shoot with both of us sobbing. He has a funny way of talking, but he’s so open with his feelings. He talks about seeing a friend killed, about how he can’t get over the war. I learned a lot. And then I cried a lot.
The second is my grandma talking about the little community where she grew up. It’s full of one-liners (“I didn’t see a box of Corn Flakes till I was 7 years old. Now does that tell you something?”), and she also talks about how she truly, truly believes she saw a UFO once. It cracks me up every time I watch it; I still can’t believe I got her to do it.
JM: What future projects are you developing at the moment?
CP: Over Christmas, I’m going to go home to Louisiana and try to do some work on an audio story I’ve wanted to do for a long time. On her deathbed, Audrey Ellis confessed to my great-grandmother: “Rita Mae, Roy is as much as woman as you or I am.”
Ellis was Roy’s mother. Or at least that’s what everyone in Delhi, Louisiana thought. She had raised him, anyway.
Back then, Delhi had a population of 1,800. Everybody knew everybody, and though people liked to gossip, nobody asked any questions when Audrey Ellis and her husband (whose first name no one seems to know) showed up with a 26-year-old son. It was 1953, the day Hank Williams died. My grandma remembers her brother listening to Hank Williams records on repeat. “Then they just showed up across the street.”
As an adult, Roy wore Dickies, work boots, birth control glasses and a crew cut. He mowed everybody’s lawn by pulling a manual mower behind his bicycle. He never married, and if people had suspicions, they didn’t voice them. His obituary — run in the Delhi Dispatch in 2006 — ran as Delois “Roy” Hudgens. Secondary references called him “Ms. Hudgens.”
Small towns — even those in the conservative South — accept people without question. Town drunk? Well, that’s just Jim. Town cross-dresser? Well, that’s just Roy. No one knew exactly why Roy — clearly a woman — dressed as a man. And no one asked.
My own grandmother often told me stories about Roy. I usually had to beg her — She never wanted to seem like she was talking bad about him. Until college, I didn’t know why I was so fascinated by the story. It was strange, but my family had plenty of strange stories. This one was different. I, too, grew up in the South, but the cities I lived in were bigger. They lacked the small-town, accept-everybody-because-they’re-just-like-family feel. And when I confessed — at 18, in church on Easter Sunday — that I’m gay, most people didn’t take it well.
I never felt like a man, but I did long for some town where I could be me, Casey, no questions asked.
For more from Casey Parks, check out her 78 (!) videos on vimeo.
26 Interviews by Jon Miller
26 interesting people.