Rhonda Hart sports vibrant Anime red hair, a visible tongue ring and a pair of simple black framed glasses. A baggy gray sweatshirt hides her athletic frame but with a confident swagger, the 42 year old Hart commands attention when she walks in a room.
“I joined the United States Marine Corps when I was 17 - actually, I turned 18 in boot camp,” explained Hart who grew up in Niagara Falls, New York. “Originally I wanted to join the Air Force because they offered photography as a profession. I mean, why would I go to college when I could join the military and get paid for something I like? Plus, it meant I could get out of Niagara Falls.”
As fate would have it, when Hart went to the recruiting office to enlist, the only personnel available was a Marine Corps officer who quickly snatched up the high-school senior.
“The recruiter showed me some videos and I liked what I saw,” exclaimed Hart. “I was a tomboy growing up so I liked climbing trees, playing in the mud and running around with toy guns. But when I went home and told my Dad, he said I would never make it through boot camp.”
Spoiler alert, Hart made it through the 13 weeks of basic training on Parris Island.
“Despite my Dad, I made it through just fine,” laughed Hart. “I mean there was a lot of yelling and you find yourself with your face in the mud doing push-ups when you screw up. Other than that, you get to play with weapons and run obstacle courses which is fun!”
After basic training, Hart relocated to Colorado’s Lowry Air Force Base where she would receive three months of photography school before embarking on a 20 year career as a Marine Corps Photographer.
“Lowry was considered a Department of Defense base because it had all of the military services under one school house. Our training wasn’t segregated at the point,” recalled Hart. “We still had to go through [physical training] with our units and you wouldn’t be allowed to leave the base if you couldn’t pass the physical but that just comes with the job.”
Keeping in peak physical condition wasn’t the only thing that came with the job. Although Hart spent most of her days photographing portraits and ceremonies, there were days when her tasks took a more morbid turn.
“There were definitely times when I had to photograph crime scenes,” said Hart. “You’d have your photo kit next to your bed and a pager on your person. Sometimes you’d get a page a 2 a.m. and you’d have to report to the scene wherever it was. Personally, I have done everything from arson investigations, autopsies, accidental deaths, suicides and even plane crashes.”
It wasn’t all morbid. Hart’s most memorable shoot was in 2005 when she accompanied the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit on a winter training session high in the mountains of Northern California.
“We were in the field and obviously you couldn’t have a cell phone, so the young Marines weren’t able to call home and check in with their families but as the photographer and webmaster, I could upload photographs for their families to see,” explained Hart. “I found out later that the website I was managing was used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for daily briefings. In a lot of ways, I was documenting the life of and times of the military and I am proud of that.”
After one tour in Iraq and 20 years of service, Hart retired in 2012, moved to Alaska and decided to pursue her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at UAA. She figured she may as well have a degree to go along with her extensive experience.
“Initially, I really just wanted the degree – but being in a school environment has really opened up the doors for more creativity and being able to say a lot more than what I could say when I was in the military,” explained Hart.
While Hart remains undecided about her future after graduation, she is certain that it will include a camera.
*Published by the Anchorage Press