Tracing an image: chasing protocol

It began, as so many media journeys do, with a search. I Googled “2012 olympics factory” and clicked on the image tab to be presented with a mosaic of imag(in)ings, some from Flickr, some from Blogs and some from news organisations. I screengrabbed the page (which was compressed and encoded as an image file by the jpeg protocol), because by the time you click on that link to perform the same search, the stream of imag(in)ings will have flowed past.

I clicked on one image, the most ‘obvious’ sign, a worker in a Far Eastern factory, bent in the dark over a sewing machine. The connotations of ‘sweatshop’ were obvious, notably when colliding with other significations around legacy, regeneration, health and fitness within the mosaic/montage. Before I had even clicked on the image, by simply ‘hovering’ over the space, the image expanded  The click on the image expanded slightly to include anchoring text: “ShoeFACTORY_102809‑450×300.jpg, 450 × 300 – As the Olympic Games will be held on London soil for the year 2012, …”. Of course that file name and dimensions referred to the ‘original’ (sic) file not to this thumbnail that was now cached on my computer. Clicking, the image expanded further and, still on a Google page the image was overlaid on the website on which it appeared alongside text under the Google logo: “Website for this image. Full-size image – Same size. Size: 450 × 300. Type: 29KB JPG. This image may be subject to copyright.” Closing the floating image, one leaves Google’s servers and is on the cyclodelic blog on (a blog linked to a a cycling clothes manufacturer in East London (

It turns out that the image is not on WordPress servers, let alone cyclodelic’s (although it may well be ‘in’ caches on those servers). It is actually being pulled in from an external site. In These Times describes itself as: “a nonprofit and independent newsmagazine committed to political and economic democracy and opposed to the dominance of transnational corporations and the tyranny of marketplace values over human values” ( It is unclear whether cyclodelic found this image on their site through an image search, through a search for “transnational corporations and the tyranny of marketplace values” or any other search. The image appears on an article headlined: “Corporate Sweatshop Apologists Star at Anti-Slavery Conference” with the caption: “A worker labors at a shoe factory in December 2006 in Chongqing Municipality, China.   (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)”. ( The magazine has clearly paid Getty Images for a digital copy of the image, encoded as a jpeg so it will work with its website and my browser will display it. Tracing the image to Getty’s servers, one finds the image, taken in 2006, with the title: “Chinese Shoemakers To File Suit Against EU” and the caption: “CHONGQING, CHINA – DECEMBER 12: (CHINA OUT) A worker labors at a shoe factory on December 12, 2006 in Chongqing Municipality, China. Chinese shoemakers plan to file a suit against the European Union (EU) contesting the legal and factual basis of the anti-dumping measures the EU has just taken against them. According to EU figures, China exported 1.25 billion pairs of shoes to Europe in 2005. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)” (

A copy of that image now ‘exists’ in the cache on my computer (and if you have clicked on the link, on yours).  Interestingly Getty images charges for 3 months Web use. How that fits with PC and serach engines caches let alone embedding is another jpeg-stimulated issue. The question arises whether I, you, cyclodelic or even Google have crossed or maybe reconfigured the copyright of that image or even its ethical position as it appears in the scopic montage/dialectical images that started this journey.

Screengrabbing the image creates a new image, a copy encoded as jpeg but this is different than saving the image. The image that is saved may for instance be at a higher resolution than a screengrab creates. It also includes all the jpeg-encoded metadata that the photographer, his/her camera, Getty images or the site owner wrote into the data. Downloading that image (as opposed to caching it – a human/software rather than just a software act) gives me a copy of the jpeg-encoded image. Decoding the data in the image (the traces of the jpeg protocol’s work (using JPEGsnoop) it is possible to find information about the data downloaded:

The file is a  JPEG JFIF, a “file format created by the Independent JPEG Group (IJG) for the transport of single JPEG-compressed images” ( compressed at a quality setting of 90 a rating of 14.35:1. JPEGsnoop also tries to match the compression signature encoded into the data. It conclude that the “Image is processed/edited” but cannot determine which software was used. It also says there is a “susbsample match” between the compression signature (the traces of the jpeg-protocol’s work as the CCD data is encoded as an image) of this image and that of Treo and a Blackberry. It is of course impossible to say if this image was taken on a mobile phone but bearing in mind it is available as a 17.2 MB – 3000 x 2000 px (25.40 x 16.93 cm) – 300 dpi file, it is unlikely. What is interesting is that the operations of the jpeg protocol in encoding information into a JPEG/JFIF file can leave such questions open.

JPEGsnoop offers a wealth of other data JPEGsnoop reports a wealth of information, including: quantization table matrix (chrominance and luminance), chroma subsampling, Huffman tables, EXIF metadata, Makernotes, RGB histograms, etc. (often referred to as Digital Image Ballistics/Forensics). This information is the trace of protocol’s work in getting the digital data from the CCD into a format that allows an image to be rendered and made usable, sharable, mashable, downloadable, embeddable. What is important is that all this data are the traces of the operations of the jpeg-protocol. This journey, through issues of engineering, legality, sociality, campaigning, politics, representation we have been dealing with the traces of protocol, its effects and affects in the world, it relations with other structures, institutions, discourses and practices – actants in the network. The connotations that drew me to the image, its role in cyclodelic’s marketing, branding and business, In These Times’ campaigns and business and indeed my PhD are all set in motion by the operations of protocol. Jpeg’s work as an actant is enfolded in those alliances. The fact that those relations have been set in motion and we have been able to trace them is down to protocol, but what we have seen, traced and tracked is not protocol. It has withdrawn from view.


I emailed Getty Images:

“As part of my work I am exploring mashups and what happens when ‘official’ 2012 images sit alongside other images of 2012, the sportswear industry etc. I would like to use this photo  as part of a new image/montage that I would include in the project Flickr album ( geolocate within the Olympic site. This would mean that anyone searching for 2012 images or images taken in the area of the stadium would find the picture. I would change the title and description of the image to reflect the photographer, his copyright and the site.

I am aware that this is an unusual use – part research, part artwork. I am more than happy to answer any questions or discuss further with the agency or the photographer.

More details about my project can be found on my website:”