EARLIER THIS year when the West African Republic of Niger released a pair of stamps honoring the late Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), few people were as delighted as Alexandria photographer Marty LaVor.

LaVor, who had traveled to Africa as a special consultant to Leland's House Select Committee on Hunger, took the photograph on which the country's two Leland stamps were based.

The photograph, which has become LaVor's best-known work, is a simple one. At a refugee camp in Khartoum, Sudan, a few months before Leland died in an airplane accident, LaVor snapped a photo of the congressman holding a Sudanese refugee child, the child tugging at Leland's salt-and-pepper beard.

Several months after Leland and several members of his staff died in the Aug. 7, 1989, plane crash in the mountains of western Ethiopia, the government of Niger decided to add the congressman to the list of Americans it has honored on its stamps.

But unlike the other Americans featured on the stamps -- entertainer Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. -- Leland's face is probably not as well-known to residents of Niger as was his compassion for Africa.

What would best express Leland's interest and honor him at the same time? The government decided that LaVor's photograph, published around the world at the time of the plane crash, would fit the requirements ideally.

The Embassy of Niger called LaVor last November seeking permission to use his photograph on some stamps. The photographer said he was ecstatic when he saw the stamps, complete with a line crediting him, earlier this year.

"I was dumbfounded. I was just floored. That's the only way I could describe it," he said.

But now, seven months after the stamps were released, LaVor said he is having some second thoughts about the deal. Specifically, he questions whether Niger is living up to its part of the agreement. It had agreed proceeds from the sale of the stamps in the United States would go towards a fund established for the children of Hugh Johnson Jr., a Leland aide who died in the plane crash.

This summer, at a press conference at the National Press Club, Niger Ambassador Moumouni Adamou Djermakoye acknowledged that his country had entered into such an agreement for use of the LaVor photograph. With the help of its Washington lobbying firm of von Kloberg & Associates, Niger then was on an ambitious public relations program promoting the stamp.

The ambassador presented copies of the stamp along with his country's highest honor, the Order of Merit of Niger, to Alison Leland, the congressman's widow, and he held a breakfast meeting with reporters, presenting copies of the stamp to reporters and D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy. Since then, little appears to have happened to promote the stamp sales here.

Susan Richman, director of international marketing for von Kloberg, said there have been no payments into the children's fund because "no stamps have been sold yet" in the United States.

The dilemma LaVor faces illustrates one of the vagaries of dealing with foreign postal administrations. While the Leland stamp release was big news to Leland's followers and American collectors who specialize in foreign stamps with American themes, it probably was not that exceptional back in Niger.

With a population of 4 million, Niger issues about 45 stamps a year. But unlike many foreign nations that view American collectors as a primary market for their stamps, Niger has no marketing program to sell its stamps here, although collectors can order them from dealers with overseas suppliers or contact the embassy.

Moreover, Niger had its Paris printer print only 10,000 of the 300 and 500 franc stamps -- well below the 160 million commemoratives that the U.S. Postal Service prints. Even if all were sold to U.S. collectors, the profits may be marginal at best.

All of which has left LaVor fearful that the stamps will sit in the Niger Embassy on R Street NW. Still, he said he has had an experience few U.S. photographers have.

"Getting your name on a stamp is about a heady experience as you can have," he said.

THE ROCKVILLE-Gaithersburg Stamp Club holds its free "Rocky-Gate '90" stamp exposition Saturday from 10 to 5 at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 16420 S. Westland Dr., Gaithersburg.

INFORMATION

on purchasing Leland stamps can be obtained by writing the Embassy of Niger, 2204 R St. NW, Washington, DC 20008.

Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff. Marty LaVor's 1989 photograph of Mickey Leland, basis of a stamp from Niger.