Fiona Harrington is a Senior Producer for SALT, a London-based film production company. She first volunteered for the Handshake on its inaugural expedition in 2008, and returned in 2009 and 2010 as the leader of the Video Team. Here, she tells us why she decided to volunteer, and how the Handshake has affected her life.
Fiona heard about the Great Primate Handshake concept before it became a reality, when she attended a dinner with the Handshake co-founders almost a year before the first expedition began. “Hearing Laurence and Al speak about their ideas over dinner made me feel really excited. They conceived this idea and felt so passionate about primate conservation…I found it was infectious.” At that point, although she had always been interested in conservation, Fiona had never imagined that she could use her skill set to make a difference within a conservation project. When the first Handshake expedition was announced for September 2008, therefore, she jumped at the chance to take on the challenge of using the skills she had acquired as a media professional in the “relative ease” of the London working environment and finding out whether they could make a real difference to the people and primates encountered throughout the first Handshake in South Africa.
The experience turned out to be such a positive one that Fiona returned to the Handshake for a further two expeditions, leading the Video Team in Uganda in 2009 and Kenya in 2010. To return as a team leader felt amazing for her, especially when watching the showcase of completed work at the end of each expedition and realising that she had helped her team create such a large amount of brilliant and effective content in such a short period of time.
While on the three expeditions, Fiona was struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of everyone involved, noticing the humanity that motivates people to take part shine through in each individual. “Each person really wants to achieve something and make a difference with their film or piece of content, and they really work extremely hard within the time given to make that a reality.” She also found that the Handshake has been a life-changing experience for her, as she learnt a huge amount from the people and situations encountered, forged lifelong friendships, and experienced conservation in a way she had never previously thought possible.
Based on her Handshake experiences, Fiona thinks that the most pertinent issue facing conservation is changing people’s mindset, and making them understand how important conservation is, especially in increasingly difficult socio-economic climates. She sees the journey to improvement being a gradual one, affecting one person at a time, with working towards changing the mindset of this generation so that they influence the next an essential focus.
With only a few weeks left until this year’s expeditions commence, Fiona leaves us with some advice for the new generation of Handshake volunteers that will be joining us in the field: – don’t forget your head torch, as trips to the bathroom in the night without one are not fun, and – get ready to embrace the vivid landscapes of Africa and have some of the best experiences of your life.