Second Acts: Lucian Nastasi

Lucian Nastasi’s second act was rediscovering his first love — photography.


Lucian Nastasi considers himself lucky. Lucky that he was raised by a loving Romanian family who valued education. Lucky he learned to speak English starting in the second grade (with help from the Cartoon Network). Lucky he came to the U.S. during his college summers to work in restaurants as a table busser (a.k.a. clearing dirty dishes) and serving (because he understood Americanisms like “dressing on the side”). Lucky to win a U.S. green card in a visa lottery (odds more than 290 to 1). Lucky he ended up on Martha’s Vineyard working at Détente restaurant in Edgartown. Lucky to spend his time off amid the beauty of the Island, seen through his eyes and through the lens of his camera. 

If Lucian Nastasi’s first act in his young life was as a Romanian college graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, his second act was as a wandering restaurant server who realized his dream of becoming a professional photographer. That’s the short version. Here’s the full story.

In the early 2000s, Lucian was studying in Romania and working part-time in his father’s electronics business. Lucian himself was entrepreneurial, having started a martial arts school when he was in high school, “but I always had a little artsy approach and attitude. A lot of my friends were architects or painters, or I spent more time in that environment.” Looking back, he says, “I realized [business] was not something that I would like to do. I wasn’t happy, so that’s why I turned to photography.” Still, he continued with college, took photos when he could, and pursued his other passion, America.

During his summers, Lucian began coming to the U.S. under a J-1 (cultural exchange) visa: “I got lucky enough to get a position as a server in Harrah’s Casino [Atlantic City] restaurant.” There’s that luck again. Didn’t he have to earn money for school? “Luckily in Romania, the college is mostly free. If your grades are good — in my case, my grades were good … I got a scholarship.” More luck. 

The next summer “was the total opposite of Atlantic City; it was the Hamptons,” and the following summer, New York City: “I lived in Queens, in a shared house. It wasn’t housing provided by the company. I had friends from the previous year from the Hamptons.” In New York, Lucian made more money, but everything cost much more, and city life itself was challenging. “New York City was a huge part of my personal development. The city is ruthless, and teaches you a lot the hard way. The experiences I saw were crazy, from crazy artists on the street to famous actors; it’s hard to explain, but I’m grateful for it.” Lucian was a server at one of the city’s premier Italian restaurants, ’Inoteca, in Lower Manhattan, fast-paced, in demand, full of power people. He worked three summers there. 

Then it was back to Romania, now to earn a master’s degree “in something practical — regional economics, how the European Union helps countries develop.” But again, it wasn’t his calling. The U.S. was calling. A friend he’d met in New York “was on Martha Vineyard and said, ‘You should come; everyone is very nice here.’ After New York, I needed a change.” He came and met “some fantastic people who owned restaurants, and I stuck with them and loved it.” The owners were Kevin and Suzanna Crowell, and the restaurants were Sweet Life in Oak Bluffs and Détente in Edgartown. “I started as a busser; I was promoted to server; and in a few years I was managing, while still working as a server.” 

One other event had happened that changed Lucian’s fate. He applied for a green card through the annual visa lottery. Each year, the U.S. picks only 50,000 names out of millions of applicants. In the year he won, more than 14,000,000. It was beyond a long shot. But Lucian, with his luck, was picked on his first try. 

That meant he could work at Détente not only summers, but throughout its season: “I loved it because the environment is fantastic. The owners are very calm. I would say it’s an atypical place — there’s no shouting in the kitchen. Everybody knows each other — a fun place with good people.” Being a server and manager, working not only nights, but all day, to handle staffing, maintenance, and reservations, meant little time for photography. 

And, of course, housing was a challenge. “I lived my first two weeks on the Island with some friends on a couch. The next month, I found another couch. And then luckily a spot, a bed, was available. I managed to stay with some colleagues of mine who had a house, living in their basement.” 

On his rare time off, he would “take a bus to the beach, to Menemsha, and do a little exploring. Later, I could buy a car and take my camera.” Lucian, an entirely self-taught photographer, got better and better, and began to pick up some small projects. “I was helping some photographers on the Island, at first with the weddings,” and then, “I did some food photography for Détente and Sweet Life.” His love of photography was back in full bloom.

Speaking of love, Lucian then met his future wife: “She’s originally from Russia. We met on the Island in 2017, in the summer. The next year, we got married because everything was great all the time … actually still is.” Even housing was finally getting a bit better. “I had my own room after so many years sharing,” Lucian half-jokes, “but in 2018 I got married, so really, I stopped having my own room.” Today they have their own place; his wife, Iya, also works at Détente, and they have a 1½-year-old baby boy. 

With that fairytale marriage story, it’s no wonder that Lucian found his way back behind the camera, now gravitating to wedding photography. He’s been at it now for eight years, a little more each year. He has worked at some extraordinary celebrations: “I remember one wedding … three days, a huge property, tents, fancy stuff. The wedding planner said it cost $750,000, which for me was two houses … or maybe one house on Martha’s Vineyard.” Now, Lucian has done large and extravagant, as well as small, family backyard weddings, whatever is called for. “All I wish for people is to be happy and just enjoy the moment.” Of course, he also photographs those carefully plotted, surprise engagements. “I love to find and capture the emotions … in a more candid, documentary style.”

Today, Lucian still divides his time between the restaurant and the camera, and his new baby. He’s happy. He’s come a long way from Romania, geographically and personally. How did it all happen? What made him think he could move half a world away and make a successful life in a field he had never formally studied? “It was a combination of things that made me feel comfortable — where I was living, and what happened step by step. I just enjoyed how nice people are on Martha’s Vineyard. After three years in New York City, I had enough of the craziness of a big city, and I always liked nature. I like the part of Martha’s Vineyard where you can hike, the paths, and the whole lifestyle. I loved it.” He pauses, and goes on thoughtfully, “Everybody being so supportive, I honestly think it was easy. I love the fact that everybody smiles. I love that people generally are not stressed, even when you want to cross the streets, or you’re driving, people let you in. That’s the kindness I was taught in my house, but not necessarily what I was experiencing in life. So that was a thing that I really loved. That’s one of the reasons I am still on Martha’s Vineyard.” Does he see himself spending his life here? “Yes, I think so.” Another pause and reflection, “I’m lucky to be here.” 

There’s that luck again. Lucian’s luck. But as the wise saying goes, people make their own luck. You find a good place, and stay, and build a life — sometimes a second act — of rediscovering what you truly love.